When Victims Experience Re-Victimization in the Courtroom
Date:  03-16-2016

Court room appearances often leave victims re-traumatized
This article originally appeared in the Women’s Consortium Newsletter. It is re-posted here with the author’s permission.

Encountering Trauma In The Courtroom

By Mary F. Haddon, Attorney at Law

Unlike defendants in cases, including but not limited to, sexual assault, stalking, and intimate partner violence, victims in these matters are not guaranteed the right to free legal representation. Given the nature of these crimes, victims often experience trauma from the crime itself and the aftermath of being violated by someone they trusted. Often traumatized, victims do not know where to turn once the arrest occurs, and frequently do not have the resources to protect themselves. True, in most cases prosecutors contact the victims, and rely on the input to buttress their case against the accused. Victim advocates try to help victims navigate through the labyrinth of a complex judicial system, but lack the resources that victims need to overcome the traumatic event. The victim’s feelings of helplessness and isolation are often further complicated when the violator is someone that the victim has relied upon for basic living necessities. With nowhere to turn, victims often drop the criminal charges, and the violator is free to resume regular living patterns of abusing the victim without fear of retribution.

Victims who decide to engage in the legal process face an uphill battle of their own. Often still traumatized by the incident(s) of abuse, they are left to maneuver through the legal process while lacking the legal knowledge needed to successfully engage in these battles. Facing the offender and other phases of the legal process may cause the victim to suffer physical and emotional re-traumatization, which can be triggered by something as small as a smell, sound or sight in the courtroom that is handling the offense. Further, continued involvement in the criminal process may elicit a dissociative response from the victim. According to the Sidrian Institute, when someone dissociates there is a change in their consciousness which disturbs the normally connected functions of identity, memory, thoughts, feelings and experiences. In essence, there is a split between the victim’s understanding of what is happening to them and experiencing what is happening to them. This defense mechanism may cause confusion to the victim, and result in the victim’s inability to provide a consistent detailed account of the events giving rise to the charge(s) against the accused. As a result, the victim’s account becomes questionable, thereby leading to the exoneration of the charges filed against the defendant.

Fortunately, some courts are adopting trauma informed approaches to assist victims deal with the traumatic nature of the legal process. For example, some judges allow victims to testify against the accused in a way that maximizes privacy concerns. For example, recesses are granted when victims are in need of time to gather their thoughts during testimony. Efforts are made to elicit a full accounting of events that led to the arrest of the defendant while minimizing the chance of re-traumatizing the victim. Additionally, non-profit groups such as the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut, Inc., (VRCCT ),in Wallingford, CT are working to ensure that every victim of these crimes have an attorney to help them through what the Department of Justice has called “a perplexing maze of coexisting, overlapping, and complex legal issues after their victimization. These groups are championing the cause of traumatized victims who previously had no place to turn.

Attorney Mary Haddon received her Bachelor of Science in political science from Southern Connecticut State University in 1983. She obtained her juris doctor from the University of Connecticut, School of Law in 1986, and has practiced law in Connecticut since November 1986. Attorney Haddon has provided volunteer advocacy services for groups including JUNTA for Progressive Action and the Connecticut Women's Consortium. She can be reached at mfhaddon@gmail.com.