March-April 2024

Dallas County’s new wellness program for staff

By Julie Turnbull, Jennifer Balido, Lauren Black, Jenni Morse, Kim Nesbit, & Claire Crouch
Wellness Committee in the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Dallas County

Being a prosecutor is an exciting and satisfying profession. Prosecutors are tasked with fighting tough, fighting fairly, and doing justice. It goes without saying that the job is never easy, and it is often emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing. Even so, there is nothing more rewarding or fulfilling than to advocate on behalf of a victim of crime.

            Although extremely gratifying, the job does come with a unique perspective and experience that other legal professions do not share. The demands of the job require prosecutors to walk in the footsteps of victims, see the events through the eyes of first responders, and balance objectivity with the legal requirements to secure justice. The combination of these stressors can affect a prosecutor’s daily life, both at work and at home. 

            The Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office is committed to the health and wellness of its dedicated public servants and has taken proactive steps to address these stressors head-on.  The office has contracted with F1RST, a comprehensive wellness initiative designed to tackle the repercussions of continuous stress exposure on the overall well-being, performance, and relationships of those working in the criminal justice system. This initiative was conceived in February 2023 by prosecutor Jenni Morse. Following a meeting with the Dallas Police Department’s Officer Wellness and Longevity Unit in March 2023, Morse and her colleague, Jennifer Balido, recruited experienced prosecutors who possessed firsthand knowledge of the profound toll that their profession can take on an individual to form the Wellness Committee. The committee is comprised of Lauren Black, Deputy Administrator; Jennifer Balido, Chief of the Appellate Division; Julie Turnbull, Chief of the Restorative Justice and Mental Health Division; Kim Nesbitt, Chief of the Pre-Trial Bond Division; and Jenni Morse, Chief of Special Projects. Each member deals with attorneys, investigators, and support staff in a supervisory capacity, and through their work, saw a need for trauma-based resources as well as increased education on the existence of and resources available through Dallas County’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

            “Through our supervisory roles, we each saw our team members struggling with the toll of vicarious trauma we endure in this profession,” Jenni Morse explained. “While we appreciate the benefits that the county provides, we did not feel we had adequate resources that were specifically tailored to the type of work we do. Watching our victims die on body-worn camera footage, hearing the screams of a victim as they are being attacked on a 911 call, speaking to the loved ones of the deceased and shouldering their grief, and feeling the pressures of being the only conduit for justice for these families is a burden that few professions share.”

            While the initiative and the creation of the committee came together rather seamlessly, the implementation of the program was not a quick process. The five members met regularly to outline the objectives, framework, policies, and procedures, with guidance from the office’s Civil Division. The committee visited F1RST’s location in Frisco in May 2023 to see the facilities and learn about the services F1RST provides. After selecting the training curriculum that best fit the needs of the office, the committee then pitched the idea to the DA’s administration.

            Criminal District Attorney John Creuzot was swift in granting his approval and wholehearted support to this partnership. “Part of running this office is caring for the people,” he said. “We cannot do our jobs if our people, whether they be answering phones or prosecuting cases, are not healthy both physically and mentally. I am so proud of this partnership, and I know by strengthening their mental health, our staff will be even more equipped to see that justice is done in Dallas County.”

            With DA Creuzot’s support, the committee then began rolling out the idea to various levels of the office, culminating in an office-wide meeting on October 2, 2023. The objective of the meeting was to launch the new program and drum up excitement for the new focus on office wellness. 

            Beginning October 5, 2023, every member of the office was offered resiliency training, with each session carefully tailored to address the unique challenges of their specific roles within the office. As of February of this year, the office had conducted nine workshops for prosecutors, three for investigators, six for support staff, and one specifically tailored to the administrative team. Each of these workshops included discussions on the physical, emotional, and relational effects of the job. The F1RST team also provided information on general trauma; conditioning responses from repeated trauma, such as consistent viewing of autopsy and crime scene photos; the areas of the brain and their respective functions; the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; and techniques to take a person out of the stress response known as “fight or flight.”

            The investigator workshop was expanded to four hours to meet TCOLE requirements and included topics such as residual trauma from their past work in patrol and investigative divisions, nutrition, and physical therapy exercises to combat fatigue from desk work. Additionally, the culturally competent providers at F1RST can provide counseling and holistic treatment services, if needed, through Dallas County EAP.

            “The goal is to provide not just mental and psychological services to our employees, but to give them access to nutritionists, physical and occupational therapists, and recovery specialists as well,” added Jennifer Balido.

            While the DA’s administrative team understands that this training will not eliminate the trauma experienced by the staff, it does provide a crucial outlet and equips employees with valuable tools to manage and openly discuss the effects of the hazardous aspects of their jobs.

            “By learning the effects of vicarious trauma and chronic stress on the individual, providing resources to counteract or treat these effects, and continuing to seek out ways to enhance the well-being of our office members, we hope to become healthier and more effective in our pursuit of justice for the citizens of Dallas County,” said Lauren Black.

            While the process has not been without its challenges, the committee has already witnessed tangible results. From fostering open dialogues surrounding work-related stressors to introducing rejuvenating activities like a prosecutor-led yoga classes on Fridays and employee Wellness Walks, the positive impact of this new initiative is unmistakable. It’s evident that these changes are reshaping the overall atmosphere of the office, fostering a healthier and more supportive environment for all.

            For more information on this wellness program, please email Jenni Morse at [email protected].