Re-Victimization by the Court System

By Rebecca Lynn

Many survivors who leave abusive partners experience victimization long after the relationship has ended–which is unfathomable to those who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence. According to Stand for Families Free of Violence, on average, a victim leaves their abusive partner seven times before getting out for good. Society believes that it is the victim’s choice to stay and that once they leave, it is their choice whether or not to go back.  What society doesn’t know is that life after leaving an abuser is often filled with secondary abuse, including re-victimization by the community, family members, the abuser, criminal courts, and custody courts. This abuse can be as painful as when they lived with their abuser.

Survivor Struggles

A typical victim, according to Better Help, is already experiencing the psychological symptoms listed below, all of which can be linked to Complex PTSD, a disorder frequently suffered by many domestic violence victims or witnesses of abuse. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Decreased sense of self-worth,
  • Lack of trust in others,
  • Anxiety & paranoia,
  • Emotional numbness,
  • Increased risk of health concerns and
  • Under-identifying dangerous situations (putting themselves at a high chance of re-victimization).

Victims not only have psychological and physical hurdles to overcome after leaving an abuser, but they also struggle with financial and legal concerns. According to Financial Help for Domestic Violence Survivors, there are many financial obstacles for survivors to overcome, including:

  • Little to no support,
  • No place to go, or car to get there,
  • Lack of money for essentials and legal assistance,
  • Spotty or unreliable job history or education,
  • Negative or non-existent credit,
  • Concern over losing children to the abuser and
  • Being discredited, called crazy, or not believed by the legal system.

To a survivor who is already battling daunting day-to-day challenges, the idea of being involved with the legal system can be terrifying. Many victims were let down in the past by law enforcement, hospitals, and the Department of Family Services. The fears of being blamed, not being believed, and facing their abuser are real.

The lack of control and knowledge can often be one of the hardest struggles for a survivor. The National Crime Victim Law Institute put together an electronic kit for victims. The information covers the steps of pre-trial, trial, and jury trial, complete with checklists, samples, and videos regarding the process. Sometimes being aware of what to expect can ease some of your fear.

Secondary Victimization

According to the National Crime Victim Law Institute, there are many ways re-victimization can occur within the legal system:

  • Victims often have very little control over the outcome of the case and rely on prosecutors to hold the abuser accountable. Domestic violence is centered around control and experiencing the control within the courts feels similar to the lack of control they had with their abuser.
  • It is difficult to understand that while survivors lack control, they are also considered to be the witness/evidence of the crime committed against them. This means survivors are only able to be in the courtroom during their testimony, while their abuser remains and tries to prove their innocence.
  • The impact of the physical, mental, financial abuse, as well as a constant fear of the abuser is often still there and increases during the time of court hearings. Abusers may threaten, stalk, intimidate, or re-victimize the survivor to stop them from testifying.
  • Survivors may be grieving for the loss of what they thought they had, for loving someone who hurt them or helping their children work through the aftermath of the abuse. Survivors may feel like they’re in limbo–unable to step forward and recover due to the court case.
  • Friends, family members, doctors, law enforcement, judges, opposing attorneys, prosecutors, media, and mental health workers can all cause secondary injury due to a lack of training or knowledge about domestic violence.
  • Stereotypes still exist in court, and survivors may feel as if they are not believed when the defense attorney tries to discredit them. Survivors also may feel blamed all over again by the judged and court for not leaving sooner.
  • They are forced to be in the same room as their abuser, which for many survivors may be for the first time in years, and can be one of the most challenging parts of the court process.

Rely on your Resources

  • Get a protective order, and report all violations of the order. It may only be a piece of paper, but if violated, the perpetrator can be arrested and charged for a crime that escalates with each violation. Protective orders can be filed through the courthouse.
  • Most states use VINE, an automated texting service that updates the victim when the abuser is arrested, released, or has upcoming court dates. Visit the VINE website to sign up.
  • Ask your local domestic violence agency for Victim Service Resources.
  • Find out who your victim advocate is, every victim should have one, or multiple depending on where they are in the judicial system process. Victim advocates work in police departments, prosecutor’s offices, parole offices, or non-profit organizations focused on domestic violence. Victim advocates have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, and they are there to help you. Some are paid, some volunteer, but all are trained to support, assist, and advocate for you. Below are just a few of the things that victim advocates provide survivors:
    • Emotional support,
    • Answer questions,
    • Find resources for counseling, groups, shelter, transportation, welfare benefits, and any other necessities,
    • Assist in filling out paperwork and filing for protective orders, victim compensation, VINE, and other victim resources,
    • Accompany you to court and waiting with you in the “safe room” when you are not in the courtroom
    • Give tips on preparing for court, including what to wear, the process, and facing your abuser,
    • Provide information about your legal rights
    • Create a new safety plan
    • Intervene if needed with landlords, employers, or debt collectors.

Prepare

According to Justice Women, preparing for court and educating yourself of the process can increase your self-confidence, and decrease the possibility of being re-victimized. Some suggestions for preparing include:

  • Find out who the prosecutor is. In most cases, prosecutors will update you on the case if you request it. Meeting with the prosecutor helps you gain a more personable relationship–it shows that you are more than evidence, but a victim of the crime they are trying to prove.
  • Learn about the case as much as possible, the charges being filed, the evidence they have, the questions that may be asked, and the potential sentencing. There is no way to know what will be asked of you by the defense attorney, but finding out as much as you can from the prosecutor will help you feel prepared.
  • Your abuse was traumatic and, like most victims, you may have learned to disassociate during the abuse, or have spent the time after leaving your abuser trying to forget all the details. Your only job as a witness is to tell the truth. It is okay to say you don’t remember, regardless of how a defense attorney goes about the cross-examination.
  • The defense attorney’s job is to protect their client, even if this means discrediting you, trying to catch you in lies, blame you, break you down, or accuse you of making everything up. At the moment, it can be re-victimizing, but knowing ahead of time that they are doing what they were hired to do may change the way you feel about the questions they ask. Every abuser hires an attorney or is appointed one who has to defend them regardless of their guilt.
  • It’s okay to take breaks or brief pauses while on the stand. In fact, taking breaths in between the questions can help you answer them more efficiently and calmly.
  • Bring something stress relieving to hold while you are testifying. It can be a smooth worry rock, a ring, or something personal to you–it’s purpose is to ground you if needed.

The legal system can seem biased, complicated, controlling, unfair, and abusive. Organizations like Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, are determined to raise awareness about the epidemic. The more abusers who are held accountable, the more change can be made in how victims are treated during and after abuse. Your testimony, statement to police or willingness to share your story is powerful and can impact not only you, but your children, current and future victims, families of those that lost loved ones, and other survivors that at this moment are victims of secondary abuse. Remember to use your resources, lean on your support, and take the step to no longer being a victim.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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