COE prof Margie Taylor serves others through trauma counseling with first responders, juveniles

Margie Taylor

Margie Taylor, a doctoral graduate in Counselor Education, has for the past year served as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling in the College of Education. Concurrently, she has held an appointment as assistant professor in the Department o Psychiatry at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine at Auburn University. When she is not engaged in those arduous academic pursuits, Taylor leads an active and diverse private practice as clinical director and counselor at The Well Counseling Center in Alexander City.

“It is rare that I am able to reflect on my wide variety of daily experiences because I am so busy, but I definitely feel that my work with others is valuable,” Taylor said as Auburn’s recent spring semester wound down. “Starting with my first jobs as a professional counselor nearly 15 years ago, and especially with the Children’s Advocacy Center, I have always worked in the area of trauma. We don’t always know why we end up where we do, and one thing has led to another. But almost everything I do in my private practice, and much of my teaching and research, involves either hearing about trauma from victims, or helping other counselors and first responders deal with the vicarious effects of that trauma. But from the start I have felt a calling to do this.”

Since March 2007, Taylor has qualified as an expert witness on over 100 occasions, including criminal trials, custody hearings, and juvenile court hearings.

“As a children’s advocate, you are in court to represent children who cannot be there to advocate for themselves,” she said. “This has been one of the most important aspects of my career because so much depends on how I am able to represent the child’s situation, which is often traumatic beyond what most people can imagine.”

Direct services to juveniles, families

In order to be an effective advocate, Taylor has had to learn how to talk to people, including children as young as three years old, to learn what happened to them in situations that often involve violence and sexual abuse. The process is called forensic interviewing, and it is one of Taylor’s areas of expertise.

“What we do in forensic interviewing is really the whole purpose behind children’s advocacy centers,” Taylor explained. “Of course interviewers are trained in the process, and as with most things you learn and get better as you gain experience. Forensic interviewing follows a very specific non-leading line of questions so you can learn what happened to the victim, frequently a child victim. I use the ‘funnel approach,’ where I start with broad questions and gradually work down toward more detailed or focused questions.”

Meanwhile, as Taylor works with victims, law enforcement is conducting its own investigation, particularly by getting a statement from the perpetrator. She describes it as a team approach, where her interview informs or supplements the evidence gathered by investigators. To date she has conducted nearly 1,500 forensic interviews.

“In these interviews, you try to figure out what happened without leading the person,” Taylor said. “Since so many of these are sex abuse cases, it’s important to structure the interview so it is child friendly. But you must obtain details. You also want to prevent the child from being interviewed by numerous people so to prevent further trauma. Although I have heard some pretty horrific stuff, I am thankful forensic interviews provide children with a safe place to tell their story.”

Although she no longer conducts forensic interviews, Taylor’s private practice is quite active.

“My practice involves individual and family counseling to adults and children within the community in the areas of grief and loss, depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, life skill development, transitions, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That’s all pretty standard fare for any counseling practice.”

Traumatic work leads to vicarious trauma

In these challenging situations, Taylor sees a side of life that is unfair. She sees communities ravaged by economic injustice, violence, and danger. Everyone involved is affected, including counselors and first responders.

“Seeing what we see makes us aware of the needs in our community, especially for the children and their families,” Taylor said. “As counselors and first responders we are taking on the needs and injustices of these families and there is really no one to help us through that. The need is great, so a second major part of my private practice is to advocate for other counselors and law enforcement personnel and help them through their own vicarious trauma.”

Taylor’s work in this area is growing as more agencies and individuals see its importance.

“The police chief in Alexander City Jay Turner is a really great person. He approached me about working with his officers,” Taylor said. “He understands how important it is to protect his officers from their own trauma. He has each of his officers come to me for a basic mental health screening and they have the option of coming back for follow-up visits if they want to. So far I am seeing about a 40 percent return rate.”

Subsequently, other law enforcement agencies in the county followed suit. Taylor now works with area fire departments, other police departments, and the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Department. She also gets referrals from Russell Medical Center.

“Our first responders are in very tough situations every day,” she said. “They see domestic violence and horrific accidents. They respond to suicides. In some communities they are reviled just for being there. They deal with trauma every day.”

Illustration of woman with small child

The natural result, Taylor explains, is breakdowns in their own emotional health. They have no one —except Taylor in many cases— to help them work through their experiences. But it’s still hard for some people to talk about.

“There has always been negative stigma associated with self-care involving mental and emotional health,” she said. “We must break down those barriers. No one can go through what they do without being affected.”

It is widely known that many law enforcement agencies are struggling to hire enough officers. The profession is not as valued as it should be, and in spite of the dangers of the job, officers are increasingly under great scrutiny. Suicide is a very real problem for policemen. The lifespan for retired officers is unnaturally short.

“The same is true for other counselors,” she said. “We are surrounded by the challenging situations of our clients so we need to practice self-care, as well. I enjoy talking to other counselors, and feel fortunate to have developed great relationships with these people and agencies around my community.”

It is rewarding knowing that we get to be part of sending people out to do good work. We have strong students in our department. They are very intelligent and caring.

Educator and practitioner: complementary roles

“I have definitely found through my time here at Auburn that being an educator and a counselor are complementary,” Taylor said. “My work makes me stronger in both roles. The College of Education has been wonderful. I have learned so much in the last year as a visiting professor, and I am excited that I will be able to continue on for another year. I truly enjoy my students and being part of their growth and development. It is rewarding knowing that we get to be part of sending people out to do good work. We have strong students in our department. They are very intelligent and caring. We need them to have that empathetic side to go along with their counseling skills, and demonstrate it with all of their clients.”

Taylor explained that her students thrive on the practical experience they gain in their studies at Auburn, and that they really want to know what is going on in private counseling practices.

“I don’t do as much court testimony as I used to, but I help prepare counselors for their role in court testimony,” she said. “With all of my experience it is a natural fit for me to be teaching counselors. As I said, the two roles go hand-in-hand.”

With her academic engagements and thriving private practice, Taylor has a front-row seat to what is going on in the world of counseling, as well as the traumas experienced by so many in our society. She herself is not immune to the pressures she helps others deal with.

“Word gets out in a small town, and I am happy for the growth in my practice, but we must find balance in our lives. As much as I do to try and help others, I also am constantly checking to make sure I practice self-care in the midst of so many roles. Really, no matter where we are in life, that’s something we all must do.”

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