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When Perpetrators Are Also Victims

Trauma-informed care in the criminal justice system.

The judge began his sentencing speech: “What do I do when the perpetrator is also a victim?” Last week I sat in a federal courtroom in Florida, packed with survivors, advocates, and supporters of the woman accused.

I had been asked to testify as an expert witness about the impact of trauma on survivors of human trafficking. The goal was to help the judge understand trauma-informed care. It was a complicated case involving a sex trafficking survivor who had taken a plea deal for a shocking crime that she says she didn’t commit. She had spent two years in jail and was facing another eight.

I was contacted by Alyssa Beck, a young woman with an unassuming personality but a fierce spirit. Beck was trafficked at age 15 and suffered several years of horrific abuse. She fought back against her trafficker and, at age 16, was incarcerated and tried as an adult, facing life in prison for kidnapping, carjacking and four other felonies. She won her case and now works as an Advocacy Specialist for a wonderful community-based organization called the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, which brings attention to the incarceration of girls and women, many of whom are victims of violence. Through partnerships in the community, the Center has the ability to connect survivors with a wide array of services, including legal counsel, jobs, housing, and counseling.

Sadly, situations in which female sex trafficking survivors are punished while their traffickers go free are all too common. The criminalization of human trafficking survivors is counterproductive, and in my testimony I explained why. A trauma-informed approach takes into consideration the widespread impact that violence and victimization play in the lives of survivors, recognizing that a survivor’s behavior is often a coping mechanism. It is critical to recognize that survivors’ capacity to cope and their ability to process emotional experiences are often overwhelmed by experiences of trauma, causing significant, long-lasting effects. While each individual’s experience of trauma is different, it is important to understand patterns of how trauma can tax coping skills and lead to biologically-driven survival strategies, especially in cases of repeated abuse over many years. Survivors live in a “survival mode” for so long that it impacts their perceptions of reality, and inhibits their ability to see beyond the moment.

Survivors of abuse are especially vulnerable to debilitating and persistent physical and psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Trauma is also associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to lack of control over emotions, sudden outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, dissociation, and increased risk taking. The most serious of these symptoms are associated with histories of multiple victimizations, which often begin in childhood. Experiences of trauma can profoundly shape an individual’s sense of self and others. Traumatic events, especially in early life, can result in pervasive mistrust of others, and can interrupt the ability to have healthy intrapersonal relationships. Living in a constant “crisis mode,” survivors often view the world as dangerous and avoid seeking help or support because of mistrust of others. They often exhibit inappropriate responses and have impaired judgment. They may exhibit what we would consider poor judgment. Those of us who haven’t experienced trauma may not anticipate or understand their reactions or behavior.

A trauma-informed approach to care is especially critical when dealing with survivors of human trafficking and intimate-partner violence. Those working with survivors must appreciate the physical, social, and emotional impacts of trauma on survivors, helping them to sidestep re-traumatization by avoiding triggers that revictimize survivors. These may include feeling threatened, vulnerable, or experiencing loss of power or control. Expecting survivors to be able to begin the process of recovery while incarcerated just isn’t realistic. Survivors need a comprehensive, long-term approach, which includes building basic supports and safety and treatment across multiple systems of care. Helping survivors to build self-esteem, empowerment and re-connection with themselves and society is the first step in the healing process. A critical part of trauma recovery and building new lives for survivors is the development of trusting, long-term relationships, which usually must happen well before a survivor is willing to engage in treatment. A trauma-informed approach can inform therapeutic plans for trauma survivors, and allow services to be delivered in a way that will maximize chances of success.

The defendant in the courtroom in Florida was incredibly fortunate to have the support of the staff from the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, who had met with her weekly for almost two years. They invested an extraordinary amount of time and resources into her case. They devised a detailed, long-term treatment plan that included residential substance-abuse treatment, two years of safe housing, individual and group counseling, a job, and much more. The public defenders did a great job and it was clear that the judge really got it. In his sentencing, he acknowledged that under different circumstances, it could have easily been a case in which the defendant was sitting on the prosecutor’s side and her trafficker was the one in shackles. While the road ahead is not going to be easy or short, in this case, the defendant will begin that process with a lot of support behind her.

More from Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., M.H.S
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