When the Law Fails Victims of Abuse
John A. Palumbo, Psy.D.


Michael was referred to me by the State Victims of Crime Compensation Board. His case was not unlike many abuse victims. He had been bounced from one foster home to the next. His family of origin had outright turned him away at age 11, stating that he was "uncontrollable." In his last stay in foster care, Michael was raped repeatedly by the father of the home. By age 15, Michael had summoned up enough courage to go to the police and file charges. Two years later, and two months into our treatment, Michael and I were informed that the Prosecutor was dropping the case for lack of evidence. The impact on Michael was overwhelming. Although our work was focused on "walking" into the fearful images/memories, and subsequent acceptance and forgiveness, Michael was far from ready to accept this most recent abuse. To him, the State was announcing that they didn't believe him or didn't care. His response was anger, violence, indifference, and self-mutilation. He informed me that there was no need for further treatment, as he had decided to become "a sniper for any government that will take me" because he "wanted to kill."

Those of us who work with child victims of abuse are constantly reminded of the weaknesses in the foster care system. Perhaps it's time to turn our attention to the legal arena as well, and how it impacts our patients.

The system is filled with people of good intention. Conversely, we must understand that it is in fact a political system, and many prosecutors with their eye on higher office, will not take a case that is a potential loser. With circumstantial evidence, interpretive medical records, hesitant cooperative witnesses, and intimidated victims, litigation becomes a 50/50 proposition - and that is just too close to chance for many politically inclined prosecutors. As the states continue to allow abusers to walk free and continue their criminal activity, victims are getting the message that coming forward is not as helpful as we are attempting to have them believe. Couple this with the incredible fear that most abusers permeate in their victims, and the potential for our society reverting to the days when rape and other crimes of sexual violence were hushed up begins to emerge as a frightening and very real possibility. We are, I am afraid, sending the message to both victim and perpetrator that the law is impotent, and that this most vicious of crimes is okay.

As for our patients, how can we offer them a safe environment to be able to express all of their innermost torments when our efforts are being undermined by the surreptitious innuendoes of a judicial system that is basically implying that they are on their own? If, in Michael's case, I were to report his homicidal ideation, he would be picked up! The insanity is layered with insanity. And, can we honestly tell our patients that they, by seeking revenge, are wrong if the only penalty for their assailant is recourse by their own hands? Ideally, we try to explain that what happens to their abuser is not germane to their finding peace within. It's not going to "fix" their memory, flashbacks, nightmares, etc., and that their peace will come in acceptance and forgiveness. But in the real world of the victim, can we honestly look into their eyes and tell them that they can and must continue their life knowing that the person who so invaded their emotional self is not going to be held accountable? Isn't this another reinforcement of the classic distorted belief by the victim that he or she must be "bad" or in some way deserved what happened to him or her?

I may have lost Michael. I'm not sure. But I do know that if he comes back, our work together has just taken on another obstacle. In a mind so fragile and already filled with confusion, the legal system has just heaped on a bit more junk to be sorted through in search of the evasive truth that is essential to heal.

©1999 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.