One of the most common reactions a victim of domestic violence will experience is that of blame – "what did I do to deserve this?" or attempt to take the blame for the assailant's behavior "I made her angry by…". But all too often victims feel like they are being blamed — whether subtly or quite obviously — by the very justice professionals who are there to support and protect them, and help bring the perpetrators to justice.
Check out this recorded webinar, as Sara Mahoney returns to discuss:
- Victim blaming and retraumatization
- Best practices for working with victims under community supervision
- What it means to be trauma-informed
- Interviewing victims of domestic violence
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Sara, your webinar is about victim blaming. Why does victim blaming happen?
Sara Mahoney: This is the million dollar question, and one that is becoming more and more attended to with the increasing push for more awareness about DV — specifically the dynamic and inner workings of these relationships. I’m sure most, if not all of us, would be quick to say that we would “never” blame a victim in a domestic violence or sexual assault; however, many of us — even those of us with extensive knowledge and training in this area — still give off subtle innuendos that even if not meant to blame could still be perceived as such by the abused person. Our attitudes and judgments make up our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. These things — the good, the bad, and the ugly — are forged out of our life experiences, social factors, families of origin and culture to name a few.
…Many of us — even those of us with extensive knowledge and training in this area —
still give off subtle innuendos that, even if not meant to blame,
could still be perceived as such by the abused person.
JCH: So let’s expand on that… How can victim blaming happen then among justice professionals – whether it be a lawyer, a law enforcement officer or even a probation officer?
Sara: There have been many theories and hypotheses developed by social psychologists; namely, Fritz Heider, Bernard Weiner, Peter Glick, Susan Fiske and Melvin Lerner that have built the theoretical framework around analyzing people’s thoughts, beliefs and perceptions and I am fascinated by them all. When we really start to look at not just the relationship between offender and victim, but victim and “the system”, I have found that sometimes the very people that should help the abused act instead as a substitute of that victim’s perpetrator. I, myself, wanted to be a Probation Officer to help people; little did I know that my belief that “I am the authority and I know best” was actually sending the message that the person sitting across from me wasn’t in a position to make a decision about their own life. When I took a step back and really started watching other parts of the system interact with victims of abuse, I found that many of us professionals blamed victims in a lot of different ways. We tell them what to do, we minimize their trauma, we threaten them, we subconsciously form opinions about them and their situations that eventually comes out in our responses whether verbal or non-verbal. Probably the worst thing of all that we sometimes do is fail to listen to them, fail to REALLY hear them and it is usually this that prevents them from reaching out in the future.
When I took a step back and really started watching
other parts of the system interact with victims of abuse,
I found that many of us professionals blamed victims in a lot of different ways.
JCH: Without giving the whole webinar away, what are some signs of victim blaming justice professionals might be engaging in without realizing it?
Sara: I’ll make this short and quick…looks, gestures, tone of voice, questions we ask, being ill-informed and undereducated/trained, wording we use; those are more subtle ways we can exude blame and these are usually the ways in which victims are most attuned to.
Probably the worst thing of all
that we sometimes do is fail to listen to them,
fail to REALLY hear them
and it is usually this that prevents them from reaching out in the future.
JCH: Your area of expertise is domestic violence. From your own experience, observations or research, what happens when a victim tries to engage with the justice system – and yet is left to feel like he/she “deserves” what has happened?
Sara: I truly believe that we as a collective society have done some very good things in bringing the issue of domestic violence and all of its related puzzle pieces into the forefront, especially in the last couple of years. I also believe those areas and systems that engage in a coordinated community response and are committed to thoroughly understanding all of the dynamics of domestic violence tend to have much better outcomes with their victims and their perpetrators alike. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect, or just world and too many women and children (because statistically there are greater numbers of women who are victims than men—I want to make a disclaimer that I believe men can be victims as well) are still being harmed because of the choices of those people who claim to love them the most. What the criminal justice systems don’t always recognize is how difficult it must have been for that abused person to reach out, how much courage and RISK that must have taken them; and instead of acknowledging that we instead hold them responsible, at least in part for the choices of someone else. What we end up doing then is reinforcing what the victim has been hearing from the abuser all along and in these cases where we don’t listen, we could end up creating more danger for them. We have to remind ourselves that it is in holding the perpetrator accountable and making their choices our focus, not trying to decipher the victim’s level of responsibility paramount when investigating, prosecuting, supervising, counseling or treating these cases; the victims shouldn’t be the ones who end up “handcuffed” and on trial, figuratively speaking. If victim-blaming behavior is the result of our own attitudes, judgments and beliefs, then it is just as important for us as professionals to be mindful of how easy it is to fall into that way of thinking as it is for us to be knowledgeable about domestic violence and all of its other facets.