Coping With PTSD While Enmeshed In The Justice System by Karin Huffer, Ph.D.

© 21012 Karin Huffer

Used with permission of the author


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According to Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary, one in twenty-nine persons currently suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the United States.

Trauma injuring a person to the point of PTSD is sufficiently difficult to overcome for military veterans when limited to combat but not everyone diagnosed with PTSD is a veteran. It is clear that this devastating but invisible injury also occurs in the course of many others' lives that involve traumatic events such as death of a spouse or child, disasters, accidents, assaults, and rape.

Legal abuse syndrome (LAS)


Research cites one more culprit causing or worsening PTSD, the judicial system when prolonged litigation, overwhelming cost, confrontational atmosphere, and dissatisfaction with outcome, e.g., in child custody cases, are involved. I have coined this condition after its cause, Legal Abuse Syndrome (LAS).

Many citizens today are caught up and ensnared in seemingly endless battles in America's increasingly dysfunctional justice system that often settles nothing while destroying children, families, and lives.

When veterans come home already battle worn and wounded, often after multiple combat tours, and are then ensnared in the legal system, it poses a national travesty for our heroes unless they, and all citizens are properly accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities and Amendments Act (ADAA).

Unfortunately, accusations of domestic violence, custody disputes, and various other run-ins with the law that are commonly associated with PTSD leave many veterans and others with an additional source of traumatic stress caused by the adversarial justice system.

In particular, veterans are caught off guard by these traumatic encounters with the judicial system. They naively enter the process believing that they will be treated with fairness leading to justice. After all, that is the reason they put their lives on the line in service to their country, to ensure fairness, equal access, and justice for the people in our nation. At least that is the ideal that they expect.

One brilliant lawyer and veteran with PTSD/LAS described going to court with these invisible disabilities as "putting troops on the front lines with blank ammunition...They can make a lot of noise but can't really shoot back." In combat preparation and intelligence increase your odds of survival. Death or injury takes you out of action. With LAS it is not that way with prolonged litigation. The injury does not take you out of the battle but only makes you less effective.

Ironically, the healthier and wealthier you are, the more likely that you are to suffer LAS and be left without any exit. You literally become a target gunned down by paper and verbiage and cannot effectively shoot back due to symptoms of PTSD/LAS without an ADA advocate to help you overcome the limitations of this injury.

PTSD is not a mental illness but a psychiatric injury. It is a normal reaction to shocking circumstances. The ADAA mandates that PTSD as an injury is not to be used to deny any person: custody of their children, access to their financial affairs, independent living, or any other right or privilege. Under ADAA this injury simply needs accommodations to offset impairments.

If you have a disability, don't go to court without an ADAA advocate.


Physiological changes from legal abuse syndrome resulting in post traumatic stress disorder


Legal abuse syndrome (LAS) that results in or worsens post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) physically changes your body as the result of the stress imposed on it.

The first function to be affected by PTSD is expressive speech and sometimes receptive speech. PTSD/LAS renders the litigant unable to keep up with the speech and language demands of litigation. Neurohormonal effects are present but too often not identified in litigation unless specific ADAA accommodations are requested and implemented in the court. My book Unlocking Justice explains the link between diagnosable PTSD and the federal law mandating implementation of the ADAA when related.

The injury affects physical, physiological, and hormonal systems in addition to brain function. Often overlooked by judicial personnel are well-established physiological changes experienced with PTSD which seriously impair a person's ability to function during litigation without accommodations:

Psychophysiological effects

Flashbacks. Involuntary recurrent memory in which an individual has a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of elements of a past traumatic event. Usually described as reliving the event to the exclusion of all other stimuli in their surroundings.

Exaggerated startle response. Normally this is a survival response to unexpected stimuli. However, with PTSD anything, e.g., a telephone ringing, and everything may cause a violent reaction.

Hyper-reactivity and hyper-arousal. For example, the litigant cannot drive near or enter the courthouse, receive mail without panic and severe anxiety, or they are easily overwhelmed without support.

Neurohormonal effects


Fear and extreme anxiety. Sufferers are often afraid to even leave their home. Commonly they fear crowds and can only go grocery shopping in the early morning hours when few others are in the store.

Hypervigilance. Sufferers are unable to relax or have peace due to intrusive thoughts and emotions. Stress hormones reduce and down-regulate receptors in the brain causing a feeling of being numb and exhausted. That may freeze the ability to process information and respond that often has a disastrous impact on a litigants case.

Serotonin. Levels are lowered leading to depression and even suicidal ideation.



Dissociation. Characteristic of PTSD. The sufferer becomes divorced from reality and typically has no memory of events during that interval. In legal proceedings traumatic thoughts crowd out the issue at hand and the litigant may slip into a dissociative state in order to escape.

Increased opioid response. The response to this numbing hormone often prescribed to protect the traumatized from pain must be overcome to deal with the legal issues at hand. Litigants find themselves in an exhausting emotional "swim upstream" to stay focused and attentive in the courtroom. Critical data is and nuances are often missed as a result, adding to the litigants stress levels.

Neuroanatomical Effects


Decreased hippocampal volume. Hippocampus area of the brain can actually shrink if trauma is not relieved)

Decreased immune system. Sufferers often become physically ill or disabled.

Physical Effects


Chronic and diffuse physical pain.

Weight loss.

Inflammatory conditions

Digestion problems.

Insomnia and nightmares.

• Impotence or lack of sexual arousal.

It is clear that veterans and others with PTSD/LAS need to have an ADAA advocate with them confidentially put in place to help them maintain executive functionality during litigation. Otherwise symptoms put the PTSD sufferer at a distinct disadvantage and vulnerable to exploitation in the adversarial atmosphere of a courtroom or other legal proceedings.

Unlocking Justice is an effort to affordably put the ADAA into the hands of all who need it during the stress of litigation.




The "20th Century Emancipation Proclamation for all persons with disabilities," 136 Congressional Record 17,369 (1990) (statement of Sen. Tom Harkin).

The ADA is a far-reaching statute, "The ADA regulates more than 600,000 businesses, 5 million places of public accommodation, and 80,000 units of state and local government." Jeb Barnes & Thomas F. Burke, The Diffusion of Rights: From Law on the Book to Organizational Rights Practices, 40 Law & Society Review, v 493, 499-500 (2006).

van der Kolk, 1994, van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995, van der Kolk, Pelcovitz, Roth, McFarlane, Herman, 1995, van der Kolk, Hopper, Osterman, 2001, Zucker, Spinazzola, van der Kolk, 2006.

Unlocking Justice: The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act Protecting Persons with Invisible Disabilities, 2011, guides ADAA, 2008, qualifiers and their advocates and legal team through this new, and at times unpopular law with the most up to date tactics, support, and research to maximize and improve the litigation experience for the invisibly disabled. Dr. Karin Huffer supports the use of an ADA advocate, a standard of care, and other simple accommodations. Don't go into court without this complete explanation of the ADA as it relates to the invisibly disabled (PTSD, TBI, autism, ADHD, depression, mood disorders).


About the author


Dr. Huffer currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds a Ph.D. in Counseling and Forensic Psychology from Kings International University and is a licensed marriage and family therapist with full privileges to diagnose, treat, and assess clients per DSMIV-V and ICD 9-10. She is also a certified EMDR therapist by the Eye Movement and Desensitization Institute.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Evaluator and Expert Witness and meets both Daubert and Frye Standards for testimony as expert witness. She designs, initiates, and monitors effectiveness of accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act gaining physical, participatory, and testimonial equal access to litigation once ADA accommodations are administratively in place. She also Instructs courts on the ADA law and its benefits to the proceedings and participants leading to more effective use of court time and funds. In line with that effort she facilitates compliance with The American Bar Association Resolution of 2002, and the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) resulting in increased awareness of special needs litigants and improved services.

To provide accommodations design and in-court advocacy for litigants with disabilities she founded Equal Access Advocates. Her 1995 book on Legal Abuse Syndrome is the defining work on a condition all too familiar to litigants in today's courts. Her 2011 book Unlocking Justice relates the problems of legal abuse to the issues of veterans and others already suffering from PTSD and other invisible disabilities, and proposes an eight-step plan to deal with such abuse.

Dr. Huffer serves clients in the states of Nevada, California, Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts, Alaska, Arizona, Alabama, New York, Texas, Virginia, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina, and Minnesota. Consultation reaches to UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.



| EJF Home | Find Help | Help the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter | Newsletters |

| Domestic Violence Book | DV Site Map | Data tables | DV bibliography | DV index |


| Chapter 4 - Psychological Studies Of Domestic Violence |

| Next — Chapter 5 -In Women's Own Words |

| Back — "Shameful" Secret? Post-traumatic Symptoms In The Corrections Ranks by Caterina Spinaris Tudor Ph.D. |


This site is supported and maintained by the Equal Justice Foundation.

Added 7/9/12

Last modified 5/16/18