The Rainbow Connection

Linda Balisle doesn't know how she'd curb childhood trauma without the help of a Madison nonprofit

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By Katrina Styx on August 3, 2020


Linda Balisle remembers well the custody case that almost made her stop taking custody cases. She was representing the mother of two young girls, who, in their initial interviews, “established that this father had been sexually inappropriate with [them] on more than one occasion,” Balisle recalls.

But the mother had her own unresolved childhood abuse and mental health issues—something Balisle’s opposition used to call into question her client’s ability to parent.

When the guardian ad litem met with the girls, saying things like, “Don’t you miss your daddy?”, the girls started to realize that not all the adults were ready to believe them.

“The children would not repeat their stories,” Balisle says. “They were tired of being asked about it, and they had already talked to the counselor, and the police. And they really had gotten the clear message from the guardian ad litem that they needed to have a relationship with their father, regardless of what was going on.”

The judge ultimately gave 50-50 placement to both parents—a devastating blow to Balisle and her client.

“None of those things individually were new to me, but when I saw how it all came together in this proceeding …” Balisle’s voice trails off. “Well, we really put on the best case possible.”

After the case concluded, Balisle checked in with the girls every so often. Eventually, “people just stopped talking to me about it because the girls were having so many problems.”

Balisle started private practice in July 1980, and soon got a sense of how poorly equipped the courts are. “Immediately, I had families for whom there was an issue of child abuse,” she says. “I became quickly aware—and this continues to be true—of the limitations of the legal system in addressing issues of child abuse in a family case and a divorce case.”

Primarily, she’s talking about proof. “Courts hold these issues to high levels of proof, which they’re supposed to do,” she explains. “Often, you know something happened, but you can’t meet a high level of proof because your witness [might be] a 3-year-old.” Faced with repeated interviews and conflicting opinions about their situation, a child may shift their testimony to better align with those who seem to be in control.

The biggest problem with these cases isn’t a loss in the courtroom. “You still have a child who something happened to,” Balisle says. “And that child will be affected by that, and their interactions with family members will be affected by that—sometimes forever without the proper intervention.”

Hope and Help for the Children

The same summer Balisle opened her firm, Sharyl Kato opened The Rainbow Project, a Dane County nonprofit dedicated to supporting children and families who have experienced trauma. The organization isn’t working for legal outcomes; it’s working to help people cope, understand, recover and, ideally, thrive. It didn’t take long before Balisle was seeing some of the same children in her practice also getting help from The Rainbow Project—and seeing how much better off those children were.

“Their focus was, ‘Let’s take this child and this family as it is and let’s work with them to deal with what happened, and help them recover, and then try to get to their optimal way of operating,’ so they could have normal developmental stages,” Balisle says.

When children experience stress or emotional trauma, the problem can remain well after the traumatic event has passed, cascading into mental health, learning ability, behavior and even physical health. Children who experience abuse or excessive stress may be more likely to encounter police or end up in juvenile court due to trauma-related behaviors.

Balisle sees the effects first-hand. “I’ve seen the damage in workplaces,” she says. “I’ve seen the damage, certainly, in the families of my clients and families of some of my friends: When somebody is a victim of abuse, that literally alters their brain. And it doesn’t take much, which is scary.”

While the law does its best to resolve family conflicts, it’s an imperfect system when addressing childhood trauma. “I have in more than one case watched young children be placed with the person who has been accused of being the perpetrator for whom there wasn’t enough proof,” Balisle says. “I tell you, it’s a very hard time for everybody in that case. And, as a lawyer, you just swear you’re never going to take another case like that, and then one walks in and there you are again.”

For those cases where the legal system couldn’t help, “what I found with Rainbow Project is that I felt like, well, the legal system didn’t have to do it all,” she says.

What does success look like with The Rainbow Project? Balisle had a case that involved multiple children in a household where the mother was a victim of physical abuse and the children were victims of excessive discipline. “Each of these children were reacting differently to what was going on,” Balisle recalls. The court system got involved after a volatile breakup, when the perpetrator attempted both suicide and harm to others.

“The perpetrator’s behavior was extreme,” Balisle says, “so it was easier to say, ‘Hey, regardless of what’s going on, this guy’s really volatile. We can’t have him around these little kids.’ So it gave a little space.” Then, she was able to connect the children and mother with The Rainbow Project, where they worked with individual therapists in a context that had nothing to do with legal proceedings.

Eventually, the children were able to go back to their regular school and have regular, supervised visits with their father, on terms they were comfortable with. “[These children were] given some capacity to restore their own brain health, emotional health, and participate in decisions about their experience of their family and being with dad,” Balisle says, “and then participate in counseling about that experience and how to make themselves more present and stronger and comfortable in expressing what’s going on.

“They were given that time to have a process that was truly related to their experience, and that has to happen,” she says. “It has to happen outside of the legal system and has to happen with some very skilled people.”

Making a Difference

Linda Balisle speaking after receiving an award from The Rainbow Project leaders.The issues that children and families experience is something that’s deeply personal to Balisle. “I have seen the damage that trauma can do to people who are untreated and not given any ability to address it straight on,” she says.

That’s part of why supporting The Rainbow Project is so important to her. Primarily, she steps in to help raise funds and awareness for their work. The big project? Rhumba 4 Rainbow, an annual salsa dancing event that attracts hundreds of people: police, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, lawyers, mental health professionals and community members included. “All of the people in those frontline professions deal with people who are impacted by trauma,” Balisle says. “They see Rainbow Project as a place they can take somebody for help, because their jobs are limited, too.”

This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19, but the organization is working on efforts for online opportunities in its stead.

As much as Balisle works to support The Rainbow Project, she wishes she didn’t have to; she’d much rather see it publicly funded. “We rely on them to provide services for people who are somehow involved in our system, either with family court, criminal court, juvenile court,” she says. “They should be funded by hospitals and clinics to refer people to them who are traumatized. Really, the fact that they have to go out and raise money so they can provide this service to all of these government agencies, it’s always been an odd thing to me.”

She has also participated in trainings with The Rainbow Project’s lawyers, “so they know where their work fits into the legal process,” Balisle says. “It helps them know what the child is dealing with at the time and to work with them. If the child is having to talk to the guardian ad litem or a counselor appointed by the county to do an evaluation, they can work with the child on handling that a little better.”

The things Balisle has learned through her involvement have certainly affected how she approaches cases involving trauma. “It helps me make some recommendations of the kind of work a child or a parent needs to do, and have that considered in resolving a case,” she says.

She gives an example of a theoretical case: One spouse is an alcoholic and abusive; another spouse has bipolar disorder, and both spouses’ behavior upsets the children in significant ways. From the lawyer’s perspective, Balisle says she considers statutes that deal with domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental health factors. “One way to do it is to go in and litigate and prove that your client is the least problematic parent,” she says. “And, sometimes, in litigation, that is where you go.”

But she prefers a more human approach. “The issue is, how are these children going to function in this family in two households rather than one?” she says. “As a lawyer, I can turn my focus to saying, ‘Look, I can say all these bad things about your client; you’re going to say all these bad things about mine. But in the end, when all of us are gone and we’re not involved with this family, these children are going to be living with these people in two homes and probably some additional people. So why don’t we focus our resolution on how we’re going to make that workable for these kids?’ … How are we going to structure all of this so that the children are not re-traumatized with every transition between parents, with every issue that comes up the parents don’t agree on and have an argument about?”

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