A few weeks ago, a heartbreaking video made the rounds on social media, showing a Florida judge scolding and ultimately sentencing a domestic violence survivor to three days in jail for refusing to appear in court to testify against her abuser. While this story is an extreme example of the reaction they face, it’s not uncommon for survivors to have ambivalence about participating in the criminal justice system. This scenario gets depicted in television crime dramas and mentioned in news coverage of domestic violence cases, often with no exploration of what might lie at the heart of the survivor’s ambivalence.
It can be hard for someone outside the situation to understand why a survivor wouldn’t want to take part in bringing their abuser to justice. You may not react like the judge in the video, but you may have wondered why a survivor would opt out of testifying. Here are a few things to consider:
- They may be physically afraid for their safety, afraid the abuser (or the abuser’s friends or family members) might retaliate. There’s no guarantee of a guilty verdict, so their participation in the process may enrage an abuser who ends up going free.
- They might be afraid that no one will believe them. A common tactic used by abusers is to make survivors feel like they’re crazy and that no one will believe them if they tell anyone about the abuse. If you have endured that type of psychological abuse for any length of time, it can be really hard to overcome that and know that you will be believed.
- They may not want to endure the emotional toll of reliving the details of their abuse. To dig up those memories and be asked to describe them in detail, when you’re working hard to put the past behind you, can be incredibly difficult and often, re-traumatizing. The length of time between when the abuse took place and when the survivor is actually called to testify at trial could be a year or longer, and sometimes they don’t want to dwell on the past.
- They may not want to face the abuser in court. Our justice system allows defendants the right to be present in court and hear the charges and testimony against them. For a survivor who has moved on from an abusive relationship, having to enter that space and be in the same room as the abuser after a period of time can be incredibly difficult.
- The abuser may be well known and respected in their community. Often an abuser will remind the victim of their status in their community or connections they have to judges or law enforcement to intimidate the survivor and keep them from testifying. David Adams, founder of Emerge, has said that it’s not uncommon for the abuser to be more likable than their victim. The victim has been systematically controlled and put down by the person that they love. When it reaches the point where they finally reach out for help, they are often traumatized and in crisis. Each time they have to come to court and see their abuser, it brings up those feelings .It’s understandable why it would be difficult then to be calm and poised and able to articulate some of the worst experiences they have had to endure.
- They may not remember exactly what happened. Trauma has been shown to affect the way our brains remember things – it’s actually part of our body’s way of protecting us. They may not remember what happened, or may not remember with the degree of chronological detail often required to be considered reliable testimony.
- They may have been let down by the system in the past. If law enforcement didn’t believe them, if past charges against the abuser have been dismissed, if prior court involvement resulted in victim-blaming and the abuser being acquitted, if they’ve had other negative experiences with the criminal justice system…it can be really hard for a survivor to trust that justice will be served.
- They may not want to speak publicly about their experiences. A courtroom is not a private space. Because of the shame and stigma often experienced by survivors, they may be embarrassed to detail the abuse in front of a room full of strangers.
- They may not actually want the abuser to go to jail. If the abuser has been the primary breadwinner in the household, or if they pay child support, the loss of income and financial stability is a very real factor for survivors to consider. Even if they’re not economically dependent on the abuser, it could be they simply don’t want to see this person that they cared about in jail or punished.
- Despite their abusive behaviors, a survivor may still have loving feelings for their partner. The relationship didn’t start abusive, and there’s often a pattern throughout the relationship where the relationship gets better and then gets worse again, similar to the rise and fall of the waves in the ocean. The ups and downs of the relationship can change the sense of normalcy in a relationship for the survivor. They may minimize the danger they are in and the harm that they’ve already experienced. The inconsistency of an abuser’s behavior can help to convince a survivor that their partner can change.
- The abuse works. The intent of the abuse is to have power and control over their partner. Whether through tactics that evoke fear, or using coercion and manipulation such as blackmailing someone or using their mental health or substance abuse history to make them believe that they courts won’t believe them, the abuser’s goal is to keep their victim silent and in their control. While society often turns blame to the victim for their reluctance to testify, we should look to the behaviors of the abuser that make a survivor feel like testifying isn’t even an option that they can choose.
These are only some of the barriers that survivors face when trying to access the criminal justice system. There are countless others, including time off from work, child care, transportation, to say nothing of probate matters such as child support and custody which can drag on for years. What can you do to help? Speak up! When you hear comments that place blame on a survivor, challenge those assumptions with some of the things you’ve read here. Volunteer! REACH has a wonderful group of volunteers who spend time in local courthouses helping survivors who come in with questions about restraining orders understand the process and fill out the paperwork. Support REACH! Our supportive services are there for survivors who are weighing their options, deciding whether or not to move forward in testifying, safety planning around a court appearance, and processing the experience after the fact.