For women who have survived abuse, the re-traumatization can come even before a legal outcome is determined.
Millions of Americans watched the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. We all witnessed the pain and the courage for this woman to recount the intimate details of her worst life experience — in a public sphere, with an expectation to remain calm and composed, in front of decision-makers who may understand little about the experience of sexual assault, and with no control over the outcome.
The scene was an amplified version of the lived experience so many domestic-violence and sexual-assault survivors endure in our judicial system. One reason the hearing was both difficult and powerful to watch was its familiarity to the millions who have survived similar attacks and to those who have provided similar testimony in a court of law.
At Jewish Family Service, we work every day with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In our advocacy and counseling services, we see firsthand the structural gaps of a civil- and criminal-justice system that struggles to integrate a clear understanding of trauma, domestic violence and sexual assault. Consistently, the gaps in the court system amplify the triggering and re-traumatization of survivors.
In our two decades of experience with thousands of survivors, we have seen this re-victimization play out in nearly every way a survivor interfaces with the judicial system. We see it in the effort to acquire a domestic-violence or sexual-assault protection order; to protect shared children in a family law case; to provide prosecution testimony in a criminal-law case; and to provide defense testimony as a victim defendant.
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In nearly every instance, the most grueling hurdle is testifying in open court. Similar to Dr. Blasey Ford, open testimony requires a survivor to narrate a painful and triggering account of abuse and attacks around which she may still struggle with shame, embarrassment and self-blame. Her account must convincingly show that trauma occurred. However, the physical and emotional experiences that accompany trauma — like anxiety, depression, anger, hyper-vigilance and dissociation — must not show. Instead, the survivor must appear controlled, with only just the right amount of emotion.
Testimony typically takes place in an open courtroom, which, by design, can be intimidating. Very often, the survivor must provide her account directly in front of the person who abused, assaulted and created a lasting trauma. Our client must maintain her composure not only through testimony but also through his response. As an advocate, I have personally witnessed blatant lies, denials and attacks on the character of our clients.
As was the case for Dr. Blasey Ford following her testimony to senators, survivors are dependent on jurists who determine an outcome that is, all too often, decided without an understanding of trauma, domestic violence or sexual assault.
Too many times, for too many survivors, our “justice” system dramatically reinforces devastating feelings of powerlessness. For women who have survived abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, an acquaintance or a stranger, the re-traumatization can come even before a legal outcome is determined. If we truly want survivors to come forward, our system needs to change so those who deserve justice and protection no longer need to be re-victimized to obtain it.