Thursday, January 31, 2013

First Responses to Victims of Personal Violence

Hal Pepinsky,,
January 31, 2013
                It was my privilege this morning to speak with two of Chris Magno’s criminal justice classes at Gannon U via videoconferencing.  (It was a new experience to me to carry on a discussion with a roomful of students following me on their screens in a computer lab.)  Chris had asked me to provide readings/audio and websites focused on ritual abuse like the kind described by the survivors of intergenerational ritual abuse and government mind control who stayed with me and came to my classes at Indiana U when Chris taught with me.  One student asked how I thought law enforcement should respond to people who told them of being victimized.  I explained my own priority for letting victims/survivors assume control of what I myself did.  As I reflected after class, I added this:

In the morning one of you asked what police could do, and I mentioned 2 cult cops I had known who had died unexpectedly without autopsies--one of them involved in Jeanette Westbrook's case who came to class with her the last semester of his life.  I met and heard the other a couple of times before he died, at Neil Brick's SMART conference.

I didn't mention that I have met other self-proclaimed cult cops and therapists, some of whom work with integrity (if futility), others who strike me as self-promoting experts for pay who have harassed if not bedded and otherwise exploited victims and mothers trying to protect children.  The trust I gained with survivors and parents rested on the fact that many women stayed over at my place when they visited my classes, including the last 12 years before retirement when my wife moved away for her own career and we commuted.  My reputation I'm sure rested in part on the fact that I never made any anyone feel uncomfortable as my guest, including having as guests for classes only those whose stories were credible to me.

With protective mothers including the many I came to know only over the phone in a flurry of early years, I occasionally found myself humming the Lone Ranger's theme song--dadaDUM dadaDUM dadaDUMDUMDUM with them as the described the latest minister or therapist or whatever man who had hit on her (assuming she had written or brushed the guy off). In general, as women's shelter workers for instance will tell you, victims of physical/sexual assault are most traumatized by the fear that they can no longer trust even the "friend." Basically, THEY HAVE LOST CONTROL.  They therefore first and foremost need to get the sense they are back in control.  They need to tell their own stories at their own pace and initiative.  And rather than making decisions for them for their own good, as in whether to take a rape kit, I think the first response to someone's disclosure can be to say something as simple as "I'm sorry," express appreciation for being trusted with that confidence, and then just listen.
This of course applies to boys and men; we have an even harder time bringing ourselves to talk about being hurt or scared.  Make sure that they understand that you will do nothing with their story unless they ask or give you their permission to do something.  Let the telling of the story including what s/he might be asking of you end before you even consider offering options including your own support and advocacy.

My discovery has been that when people know I will keep their confidences and act only with their blessing, and when I try (if sometimes fail) to make fewer promises than I think I can deliver (ie, obtain informed consent), people open up to me.  I think this is why it has been my privilege to hear so many secrets, and have so many volunteers to dare to share them with classesful of strangers, my students.  One of the satisfactions of the job was seeing survivors from Jeanette Westbrook on become stronger and feel it as they retold their stories over some years.

Jeanette as a clinical social worker took the position that she would never try to make a child who was caught in an "abusive" situation talk about it until she could assure the child or adult victim that the child would be safe after the telling.  Many of you (everyone in Indiana) are mandatory reporters of "child abuse."  I learned from experience trying to advocate--of all places--in nursing homes that reporting a problem might just bring retaliation against a resident.  Same goes for reporting child abuse.  I would only report the abuse if I believed that it would be "substantiated."  Otherwise, a child sent back to "the perpetrator" would suffer retaliation for being a snitch, or from a partner of the assailant for "lying."  Just hearing and believing the child and being someone the child (or adult victim) can return to is the greatest gift you have to give all by yourself.

Jill's and my Katy was a teenager when I got into all this stuff.  At first I was worried about her being stuck in an abusive relationship of any sort.  Then I recognized that in general, a child like Katy who could get angry or cry and talk back to me and Jill when we hurt or scared her--who could tell us any secret without being punished--was the last young person any predator would even mess with.  When her first boyfriend kicked her in the shin on the playground when she was 11, she kicked him back, ended the relationship and kept the prize skate board he had given her for her birthday.  Thinking back, then, I stopped worrying.

There's no telling how or when some victim will turn to you for help, professionally or privately.  By remaining calm and resisting the impulse to intervene (rape victims being afraid to tell boyfriends who might try to retaliate is a classic example), and mostly listening and affirming, you will I believe end up doing what is in the victim's best interest.  And I place a personal priority for helping the victims over legal duty--the line where my conscience tells me not to obey any higher orders.  My time in and around criminal justice has only deepened my conviction over time.

I hear you are writing journal entries about class today.  I'd love to see them from all who send them my way.  Nice meeting you--love and peace--hal

Hal Pepinsky,, "Peacemaking" at
519 Evergreen Circle, Worthington, OH 43085-3667, 1-614-885-6341

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