Victimised all over again

Following a personal encounter with the criminal justice system, forensic psychologist Dr Hannah Jones voices her concerns over the potentially retraumatising processes victims must go through.

In 2017 my partner was seriously assaulted. As a forensic psychologist working in the criminal justice system, I thought I had a fairly good knowledge of the processes involved following a violent crime. I was wrong.

It may be a stretch to say the process of being a victim in the criminal justice system is violent. After all, there is (presumably) a lack of intent. But it has certainly felt traumatising, distressing, abusive and exploitative. Fortunately, as a healthy white male with legal and mental health contacts, my partner holds privilege. Without such advantages I cannot imagine how one would survive the process, and yet those most vulnerable to victimisation are more likely to have lower socioeconomic status and/or limiting disabilities, including severe mental health difficulties (Pettitt et al., 2013; Rossetti et al., 2016).

Before the assault, my understanding of the process following a crime was thus: Initial and ongoing support is provided by the police, health services, and victim support agencies, and the victim receives regular check-ins. The victim is supported to give evidence, given clear guidance regarding court proceedings, and, regardless of outcome, provided with follow-up support.

To describe this as naïve is an understatement. Other than the stitching of wounds, no support was offered or recommended – practically or emotionally. The Crown Prosecution Service initially declined to prosecute the defendant – twice – despite arrest at the scene, informing my partner that they could not be certain that he himself was not to blame (despite no evidence of this, nor suggestion from the defendant). This response is shaming, invalidating, and potentially retraumatising; reminiscent of the victim-blaming of more vulnerable victims: ‘but she was wearing a short skirt’. Following a successful second appeal there was minimal contact from agencies, and a complete lack of support or advice in relation to a multitude of trauma-related symptoms.

Empirically-led recommendations for service providers include regular screening for trauma symptom severity for 18 months following the crime, with provision of trauma-focused interventions (Graham-Kevan et al., 2015). Not only is this best practice for the victim’s mental health, but also for reducing victim disengagement from the process, and ensuring that victims provide an accurate account of events. Yet the process following my partner’s violent assault in fact seemed to induce symptoms of trauma.

In limbo
Writing in The Guardian in 2013, Sandra Laville emphasised that while giving evidence is known to potentially be retraumatising (and has even resulted in suicide; see McCarthy-Jones, 2018), the distress caused by processes before giving evidence is less recognised. A 2017 report from Victim Support led by Polly Rossetti highlights the ever-increasing ‘offence to completion time’, with sexual offence cases averaging 408 days between offence and conclusion of criminal proceedings. Victim Support reported that ‘many [victims and witnesses] talked about having to put their life on hold or of not being able to move on from the crime’ due to stress and anxiety during this time. In our case, my partner considered withdrawing his statement to end this limbo, and he began to doubt his knowledge of events. On a purely economic note, lengthy delays and a lack of ongoing support surely diminish the strength of evidence that witnesses provide, potentially undermining the veracity of the case for the prosecution.

The practicalities of the trial itself were astonishing. From the uncertainty and confusion of an ambiguous start date, to the lack of update regarding any pre-trial decision-making, life was firmly on hold. We are unfortunately not an isolated case. A glance to my Twitter feed displays countless similar stories, including one barrister having to inform domestic abuse victims, who were terrified about giving evidence that day, that the trial was now delayed due to an administrative error.

No needs assessment was conducted for my partner, nor was any information provided regarding what to expect at court. The Victim Support report found that 42.5 per cent of victims were not provided with this information, despite it being a recognised requirement. Whilst a pre-trial visit to the court (undertaken independently) was helpful, it was also extremely distressing in providing awareness of the trial environment, especially the requirement that my partner’s support network would be in close proximity to the defendant’s support network. For the majority who do not undertake a pre-trial visit, this unpredictable distress would be realised only when in the witness box.

During the trial my partner was treated and referred to as a witness, rather than a victim. He was shown large photos of the crime scene, his wounds, and the weapon, with no trigger or content warning. Members of the jury were visibly and audibly distressed by the images, yet not a single legal professional sought confirmation of my partner’s mental state or ability to continue.

‘Life-as-usual was expected to resume’
The conclusion of the case and subsequent termination of our involvement with this broken system was almost a perfect metaphor of the events thus far. We received news of the verdict more than 72 hours after its delivery via emailed pro-forma, thanking my partner for acting as a witness. No support was offered, nor any explanation of the outcome. Life-as-usual was expected to resume, regardless of the traumatic preceding 18 months. Given the potentially detrimental impact of this unashamedly uncontaining experience, particularly for individuals lacking a support network, policy in this area should surely be psychologically-informed.

Victims of violent crime are significantly affected in many areas of their lives (Dinisman & Moroz, 2017). To help, Victim Support recommends: a strong trusting relationship with a case worker; support and assistance during legal proceedings; sharing with people who have had similar experiences; support during weekends and evenings; long term support; support for family members; being informed about the criminal justice system and updated on the progress of the case.

I had not spent much time considering the impact of offences on victims, other than when necessary therapeutically or in terms of risk management contingency planning. This has, perhaps, been an unconscious defence mechanism… my aim, professionally, is to view the person first, and the offence second, with a firm belief in rehabilitation rather than punishment. As psychologically-minded individuals and evidence-based practitioners, we need to be aware that recommendations are not being adhered to. We must urge policy-makers to take note of the plethora of research findings around these processes, and oil the cogs in this rusty, broken wheel.

Dr Hannah Jones is a Lecturer, Centre for Psychiatry, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London. [email protected]

Key sources
Dinisman, T. & Moroz, A. (2017). Understanding victims of crime: The impact of the crime and support needs. Victim Support.
Graham-Kevan, N., Brooks, M., Willan, V.J. et al. (2015). Repeat victimisation, retraumatisation and victim vulnerability. The Open Criminal Journal, 8, 36-48.
McCarthy-Jones, S. (2018). Survivors of sexual violence are let down by the criminal justice system - here’s what should happen next. The Conversation.
Pettitt, B., Greenhead, S., Khalifeh, H. et al. (2013). At risk, yet dismissed. The criminal victimisation of people with mental health problems. Mind. tinyurl.com/y59pgdsh
Rossetti, P., Dinisman, T. & Moroz, A. (2016). Insight report: An easy target? Risk factors affecting victimisation rates for violent crime and theft. Victim Support.
Rosetti, P. Mayes, A. & Moroz, A. (2017). Victim of the system: The experiences, interests and rights of victims of crime in the criminal justice process. Victim Support.

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