A traumatized victim or witness may act in a very different way than before being traumatized. Correct understanding of the psychological trauma and its effects may be of great aid when working with traumatized people.
Who can be traumatized?
Anyone who has experienced something strong, surprising or painful can be traumatized as a consequence. Crimes and accidents may typically cause a trauma, and it is even possible to be traumatized by merely witnessing such an event.
What is a traumatic crisis?
A traumatic crisis is a powerful state of physical and psychological stress. A traumatic crisis causes the victim to act in different ways than he or she would normally act.
Ability to function under threatening circumstances
When threatened, humans act instinctively. The autonomic nervous system starts a defence mechanism, which can in some cases be a violent struggle, sometimes an attempt to escape. If the threat is too big, the person is paralysed and without ability to do anything whatsoever. The reason why the body reacts in this way is that it has to be able to do the thing most likely to save the life of the person when there is no time to think, and therefore this function cannot be changed. The nervous system decides in the blink of an eye what the body should do.
Memories of the event
Normally, events are recorded as memories that can be logically reconstructed afterwards. However, in a traumatic situation, the mind records only the details that have played an immediate role in saving the life of the victim. These memories are difficult to examine or describe with words. Therefore a traumatized person may not be able to form a complete description of the event.
A crime victim often feels guilt for the event. Blaming oneself is a way of suppressing the frightening feeling of total helplessness. The sooner the victim understands that he or she can be subjected to bad experiences without being able to influence them, the easier it is for him or her to recover from this emotional escape from reality.
Traumatic events affect people of different age in different ways. Traumas experienced in childhood or puberty may affect the growth and development of the individual, especially if not properly treated.
How the trauma affects one’s life varies from person to person. Moreover, the effects of a single traumatic experience are different from those of a prolonged traumatic state.
Hannaleena Kuukari, psychotherapist, Tukinainen Rape Crisis Centre
Heli Heinjoki, crisis- and traumapsychotherapist (et), M.Soc.Sc., crisis work development manager, Tukinainen Rape Crisis Centre
The Senja Project 2009–2011, Rape Crises Centre Tukinainen, Association Tukinainen, funded by Finland’s Slot Machine Association
Tips for the police
1. Before discussing the case with the victim, ask whether the victim prefers a male or a female interrogator. If possible, let the victim decide!
2. Conduct the interrogations without unnecessary delay as soon as the crime has been reported.
3. Determine whether it is necessary to interview the victims under conditions designed for victims in need of special protection. Also think about whether it is necessary that the same person conducts all interviews.
4. Decide whether the conversation should be recorded (audio and/or video).
5. Begin by explaining to the victim that you may have to ask unpleasant questions since you need all kinds of information in order to conduct a neutral investigation.
6. Address the victim in a neutral, but polite and friendly way.
7. Reserve enough time for the discussion! This makes it easier for the victim to form a complete story of the events. Take a break if necessary.
8. Inform the victim about the right to get a free counsel for the court proceedings and a free support person. Make sure that the victim realizes this since a counsel and a support person can be of great help. You may, for example, give the victim the “Provide the victim with information” leaflet from the Senjanetti.fi website and(or the Ministry of Justice brochure “Rights of a Crime Victim”, which is available in several languages.
9. Also mention that the interrogation can be postponed if the victim wishes to have a counsel, provided that it is not necessary to conduct the interrogation immediately in order to solve the case. The services of the counsel are free of charge for victims of sexual crime, domestic violence, human trafficking and serious crimes against life, health or freedom.
10. Inform the victim about how the victim’s possible pleas for punishment for or compensation from the suspect may affect the right to get a free counsel for the court proceedings.
11. Help the victim to call for counselling and support organizations. The Senjanetti.fi website contains information on support service providers by region (in Finnish). Ask the victim for contact information that you can share with support service providers. Explain how these services can benefit the victim.
12. Remember that family members of the victim also have the right to receive support free of charge.
13. Take into account that a trauma affects the victim’s memory and ability to function normally. To make sure that you are understood, please provide all the information both orally and in writing.
14. Make sure that the victim understands that there will be nothing to be afraid of during the trial. Special arrangements will ensure the safety of the victim.
15. Remember that the victim has the right to receive support services even if it is decided that the case will not be investigated.
1. Before the trial, ask the victim and/or accompanying family members whether they would like to have any special arrangements, such as a separate waiting room.
2. Determine whether there is a need to conduct the hearings without the defendant present, whether eye contact between the parties should be prevented and whether the hearings should be conducted in the form of a video conference.
3. Ask all questions respectfully and in a friendly way.
4. Make sure that there is sufficient time for the victim’s story as well as the trial as a whole. Remember that rushing the victim contributes to a tense atmosphere and makes it difficult for her or him to talk about the case.
5. Take into consideration the effects of traumatic experiences on the victim’s memory and ability to function. Take breaks if necessary.
6. Prevent all irrelevant questions asked by the defence.
7. Remember that the victim is entitled to free support services both during the trial and afterwards. This applies even if the court decides not to convict the defendant or if the prosecutor decides not to bring the charge.
Päivi Vilkki, Master of Law with court training, Senja-project 2009-2011, Rape Crises Centre Tukinainen, Association Tukinainen, funded by Finland’s Slot Machine Association
Katriina Sorsa, Master of Laws with court training, project coordinator, the www.senjanetti.fi -Project 2017-2018, Rape Crises Centre Tukinainen, funded by the Ministry of Justice
Translated: Translation agency Henrik Lampikoski