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The Importance of Being Responsive to Crime Victims

Besides the satisfaction of helping people through a highly traumatic period, demonstrating sensitivity can also elicit better cooperation, essential to your investigation.

October 01, 2000  |  by Arthur J. Lurigio, Ph.D., Mindy B. Mechanic, Ph.D.

On the average, more than 40 million criminal victimizations and attempted victimizations take place each year in the United States.

The costs and consequences of crime can be measured in different ways.  When measured in dollar amounts, for example, crime costs more than 100 billion dollars annually for lost property, medical bills, and work absenteeism.  These costs are tangible measures of the heavy toll that crime exacts on our country's residents.

Victims' psychological or emotional suffering is another cost of crime, less easily understood and measured, but no less important.

Effects of Victimization

Typical Victim Reasons:

Victims of serious crime can have powerful emotional reactions.  Clinicians and researchers first began to study these responses among sexual assault victims.  Many case studies conducted in the early 1970s showed that rape victims were deeply traumatized by the crimes.  Their reactions included severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, and sexual dysfunction that typically persisted for months and even years following the crimes.

More scientifically valid research has confirmed what the case studies report: Rape victims suffer for long periods of time after the attacks, and the victimization experience affects their emotional and physical health as well as their relationships with spouses, friends, and family members-often for the rest of their lives.

The first author of this article and Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum of the State University of New York at Albany, hypothesized that victims or serious crimes other than sexual assault, such as burglary or robbery, also suffer from psychological consequences.  Specifically, Lurigio and Rosenbaum argued that the reactions of rape victims and victims of other serious crimes might be different in their intensity, but not in their basic nature.

To test this idea, we studied the reactions of robbery, burglary, and nonsexual assault victims and compared victims' psychological adjustment with that of a sample of people who lived in the same areas of a large Midwestern city but who had not been victimized.

We found that significantly greater percentages of crime victims, when compared with nonvictims, reported painful emotional and physical symptoms.  Victims were more fearful of crime, less likely to go out at night, and more likely to report that they were unhappy living in their neighborhoods.  It was especially interesting to find that victims had apparently changed their basic perceptions of themselves and of the world.

The victims in the study felt quite vulnerable, not only to future crimes but also to other adverse life events (i.e., medical problems and accidents).

Numerous other studies have also found that burglary, robbery and nonsexual assault victims experience psychological reactions that can persist for years after the victimization.  These reactions include feelings of low self-esteem, anger, social isolation and anxiety.

Furthermore, victimization can destroy people's basic trust of the world, challenge their assumptions about personal safety and security and disrupt their abilities to function at work, school and home.

Complicated Victim Reactions:

Dissociation and numbing.  Following criminal victimization, victims might display a range of unexpected emotional and behavioral reactions.  Although many of these reactions are consistent with our cultural scripts for how victims "should" react after assaults or other serious crimes (e.g., overt distress, anger, disbelief or sadness), other victim reactions in which there is little or no over distress (e.g., numbness, dissociation or frozen fright) can be confusing to outside observers.  The absence of overt distress is no indication that the victim is doing well or that the crime did not really occur.

These types of "shutting down" responses are frequently observed among crime victims, particularly among sexual assault survivors.

A traumatic event, such as a crime, can overwhelm a person's ordinary capacity to cope with stress.  The lack of control and terror experienced during a traumatic event is sometimes so overwhelming that a traumatized person's body and mind automatically engage in efforts to diminish the emotional overload.  This process is referred to as dissociation.

These reactions can be confusing to observers who mistakenly infer from the victim's outward presentations that they must not be too upset or perhaps that no crimes ever took place.  It is critical to note that not all victims show distress outwardly by displaying high levels of emotion.  If victims have dissociated during or after the crimes, they might seem nonresponsive or even very calm afterward.

Traumatic memory.  Other aspects of victim reactions can also be confusing, especially for the police officers who need to elicit a clear, detailed, and coherent statement from victims to facilitate the identification and apprehension of offenders.  How information is stored, processed and retrieved in our memories varies under conditions of fear and threat compared with how information is handled under more ordinary circumstances.

During trauma, attention narrows and is directed toward cues that have survival value.  Because of this difference, victims might provide very detailed descriptions of weapons but remain unable to offer any information about the offender's appearance.  Although this can be very frustrating for police officers, these memory problems are useful from a victim-survival standpoint.

Similarly, memories for traumatic experiences can appear very jumbled, lacking the structure, integration and coherence of ordinary nontraumatic memories.  The ability to provide a verbal or written narrative account of an incident (i.e., an organized story with a beginning, middle and end) is thought to result from a complex psychological process in which sensory, emotional, cognitive and behavioral experiences are integrated to produce a coherent story.

Trauma disrupts the processing necessary to construct coherent accounts of stressful experiences and events.

It is useful to remember that victims are probably not trying to be obstructive or evasive.  In addition, incoherent accounts are unlikely to be the result of mental illness but, rather, the natural consequence of the cognitive confusion that victims sometimes experience when they are overwhelmed by trauma.

The second author of this article and Dr. Patricia Resick of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, found that memory for traumatic events, such as sexual assaults, might actually improve during the first few months after the crime.  When missing pieces of the story subsequently emerge, this should not be construed as evidence that a victim is consciously "changing her story."

Helping Crime Victims Cope

How well victims cope with crimes and how quickly they readjust depend on several factors, including the seriousness of the crimes; the victims' ages, educational levels, and histories of emotional problems; and whether they were previous victims of crimes.  Moreover, the reactions of other people, such as family members, friends and neighbors, can have unintended negative consequences for victims.  Friends and family members can themselves be so devastated by the victimization that they are unable to be caring and understanding, leaving victims feeling confused and abandoned.

On the other hand, positive, nonblaming responses from friends and family members can have a beneficial influence on recovery from criminal victimization.

Victims can be "victimized" a second time by the unsympathetic reactions of police and attorneys, unnecessary trips to court, inadequate protection against offender intimidation and poor handling of property.  Because of the bulk of the criminal justice system's resources is devoted to apprehending, prosecuting and punishing criminals, comparatively few resources remain available for crime victims.

Consequently, millions of Americans are denied participation in the criminal justice system and the interventions that they need to recover.

Victims Programs

Recognizing the traumatic effects of criminal victimization, the Office of Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C., has funded numerous projects to educate mental health and other professionals about the devastating effects of criminal victimization and to provide support and services for victims.  In addition, several nonprofit agencies and centers offer mental health services to crime victims and their families.

Staff at the National Crime Victims Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, for example, educate mental health professionals about victims' reactions and train professionals in effective techniques for alleviating victims' distress.  Counselors from the Victim Services Agency in New York City work in police precincts and courts where they provide victims with crisis intervention and stress management services.

The National Organization for Victim Assistance dispatches crisis response teams to assist police officers, medical practitioners, and religious leaders in communities that have experienced serious crimes.  Finally, representatives from the National Center for Victims of Crime work with more than 10,000 grassroots organizations throughout the county to address victims' needs and to educate the public regarding victims' rights and legislations.

Police Responses to Victims

Patrol officers are in an advantageous position to offer help to crime victims.  Patrol officers are the first, and often the only, members of the criminal justice system to have contact with the crime victims.  When officers arrive at crime scenes, victims might be in severe emotional distress, experiencing shock while feeling helpless and disoriented.

At this point, the attention that victims receive from trained professionals can be critical in determining recovery.

Police occupy a central position in networks helping victims because of their ability to provide emergency responses to reports of serious crimes.

Police training: As part of a large study of recovery from rape and recent sexual assault conducted by Resick and Mechanic, victims reported that the police were generally supportive and that they were satisfied with their interactions with police.  Many of the women in this study were interviewed by police officers from the sexual assault unit who had extensive sexual assault training and experience with sexual assault victims.

Not surprisingly, the women who described their interactions with police as supportive reported fewer posttraumatic stress symptoms than did women who reported that their interactions with police were unsupportive or neutral.

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