UK Social Work, National Association of Public Defense Partner to Study Self-Care Among Public Defense Professionals

While working in public defense can undoubtedly be challenging, research shows that those working in that field face many of their own trials.

From high caseloads and low wages to poor public perceptions of their work, these conditions can lead to a high rate of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and professional burnout.

“Individuals employed in public defense have an extremely difficult job,” explained College of Social Work Dean Jay Miller, lead investigator of the study. “Despite well-documented challenges, very few research studies have examined self-care as a pragmatic strategy for addressing the problematic circumstances facing these professionals.”

To better understand how to support those employed in public defense, researchers in the College of Social Work (CoSW) Self-Care Lab at the University of Kentucky conducted an insightful study in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD).

This comprehensive project surveyed over 9,000 attorneys, social workers, investigators, and others, employed in public defense contexts throughout the United States. The first phase of the study, which concluded this past August, assessed several aspects of self-care and wellness and factors that influence self-care practices.  

Overall, researchers found that participants engaged in moderate amounts of self-care. Data showed that many participants struggled with balancing professional tasks and personal responsibilities.

Additionally, analyses revealed that public defense professionals from under-represented or historically marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ* professionals, scored lower across all self-care domains.

“This study brings to the surface the fact those in public defense regularly sacrifice their own needs to serve our clients,” explained Jeff Sherr, Training Director for National Association of Public Defenders. “This research partnership has highlights areas of need related to public defense employees, and more importantly, illuminates some pragmatic strategies for organizations and agencies to better support public defense employees so they are able to perform at their best for our clients.” 

Ultimately, both Miller and Sherr see self-care and wellness among public defense employees as an issue important to accessing justice.

“To make certain that individuals receive the best possible legal representation and services, it is imperative that public defense employees be supported in engaging in appropriate self-care and wellness practices,” explained Miller. “This study will provide key information to achieve those aims.”  

To learn more about The Self-Care Lab, you can view this video. You can read a research note about this project here. If you have additional questions about this project or would like to receive a copy of the full report, email selfcarelab@uky.edu.