Christy Heiskala is a Survivor Advocate for The Pride Law Firm. After her experience with the civil litigation process, she decided to dedicate her life to helping victims and their families seeking civil justice. Heiskala empathizes with survivors as someone who has been through the process both as a plaintiff and a mother to a survivor.
Today was a full-circle moment for me.
Ten years ago, I read my daughter’s victim impact statement, and then my own as the judge in our criminal case sentenced the teacher who molested her to prison.
I was alone in a room full of strangers, even though a survivor advocate was assigned to me by the district attorney’s office. I had no idea. She called me once, but I had no clue who she was or what her role was. She did not accompany me to court. I never heard from her again.
What I did hear in court that day was that there were more victims, spanning seven years and that the teacher would only serve 22 months in jail. That did not feel like justice to me. So, I hired a civil attorney.
Learning the Civil Justice System
I was still new to the justice process. I wasn’t seeking money. I wanted the teacher to do more time in prison. I wanted more victims to come forward. I wanted to punish the school for failing our daughters. I wanted the community to be aware of the pedophile in their school, church, and beloved town.
It was my civil attorney who proved the school had several complaints over many years about the teacher’s sexual misconduct with children.
It was my civil attorney who found the mom who complained multiple times to the principal that this teacher had tugged at her daughter’s underwear and sat her on his lap.
It was my civil attorney who proved that the school told us not to talk about it, leading us to miss our statute of limitations.
It was my civil attorney who acquired investigative reporters and eventually led more victims to come forward.
It was my civil attorney who helped me and my daughter get real justice.
Every time I spoke with him, it felt like trying to drink from a firehose. I had never been a party to a civil legal proceeding, and I didn’t understand legalese or the process. The civil process was harder for me than the criminal one because, in the criminal process, the victim is just a witness for the state. The victim and their families have very little say and zero control over the outcome. In a civil process, the victim is the plaintiff, and they get to make decisions and have way more control over the outcome. However, the plaintiff also has more responsibility and tasks to complete.
Filling the Void for Survivors
During this time, I wished there was someone I could talk to who could break it all down for me in a way I would understand. I wished there was someone who could say they had been in my shoes. I remember thinking there should be a liaison that could guide me through the process.
After we won our trial, I decided that I wanted to become that liaison. I had not heard the term “survivor advocate” until I researched it and discovered such a role existed. However, there were no survivor advocates in civil litigation at that time.
I then quit a long, lucrative career and set off on a path to fill this void.
After years of training, certification, and volunteering for organizations that help victims of child abuse and sexual assault, I was ready. I joined legal associations, co-chaired committees, was mentored, and had many introductions with the exact lawyers I wanted to work for: lawyers who worked with child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and harassment.
When I shared with these lawyers my idea of staffing a survivor advocate at civil law firms, they immediately agreed it would benefit the client. Yet, getting them to hire me was a slow process.
Becoming a Survivor Advocate at The Pride Law Firm
One-by-one, I began receiving contracts to work with law firms on a case-by-case basis. I enjoyed working with top law firms and seeing how each one operated differently.
I remember meeting Jessica Pride early on. When she said she wanted to hire a full-time in-house survivor advocate one day, I thought, “Finally, someone who gets it!” Jessica understood the importance of having a survivor advocate as an integral part of her team.
When the day came and she posted an open position for a full-time survivor advocate, I jumped at the chance. There was no doubt I wanted to be a part of her team. On December 16, 2019, I became the first on-site survivor advocate at a civil law firm. The Pride Law Firm was the first practice to provide this service for sexual assault survivors.
Working with Jessica has been just what I anticipated it to be. I love that we share the same vision for the type of trauma-informed service we want to offer survivors. I love that she cares just as much for those whose cases she can’t take as those she can. I love that she is the President of the Board of Directors of our local domestic violence and rape crisis center, where I was a sexual assault response team member for years. I love that everyone on our team is invested in each client and spends a lot of time discussing how we can make their requests happen.
Turning Trauma Into Support
Today, when Jessica and I presented to the American Association of Justice Sexual Assault Litigation Group, the last 13 years’ events came full-circle. We conducted a webinar and trained over 100 lawyers on delivering trauma-informed services and creating a supportive process from intake to resolution. It was a dream come true for me to present on this topic that combines my personal and professional experience.
Jessica co-founded this group because she wants survivors to receive the best legal help available, no matter which lawyer they chose. She helps other attorneys learn how to build the most robust cases for their clients.
I see so many attorneys who feel threatened by their colleagues or seem to be competing with them. I find it remarkable that Jessica’s bottom line is that the survivor is getting the best help they can, regardless of who signs their case.