In 2015, the nation’s prying eyes fixated on the criminal case of a collegiate swimmer from Stanford caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. While the public sympathized with the assailant, survivor Chanel Miller (known at the time as Emily Doe) endured a series of court-facilitated abuses lasting 18 months beyond the initial assault. Judge Aaron Persky allowed Chanel to be publicly humiliated and bullied by Brock Turner’s defense team. Meanwhile, Brock’s family and friends were invited to praise the perpetrator as a “young man of character” and “exceptional student.” As Chanel Miller details in her memoir, “And then it came time for him to testify and I learned what it meant to be revictimized.”
The US court system is currently set up in a way that inherently retraumatizes survivors, subjecting them to painful experiences that echo and aggravate the original trauma they survived. Traumatizing experiences in court include forcing survivors to face their abusers, relive detailed personal accounts of their abuse, and endure brutal character assassination on the witness stand. If survivors refuse to participate in these stressful encounters, they risk forfeiting their case, settlement money, legal protection, and only chance for justice.
This mistreatment typically plays out behind closed courtroom doors to anonymized survivors. In an effort to shed light on the trying judicial experiences of survivors of intimate partner violence, Negar Katirai conducted a survey of 53 legal advocates who assist survivors through court proceedings as part of a law review analyzing retraumatization in court.
Eighty-three percent of advocates revealed the court process as a whole regularly retraumatized their clients. Eighty-one percent said their clients were retraumatized by being exposed to their abuser in court. Sixty percent reported that court personnel either said things or behaved in ways that disrespected their clients. All but one of the advocates reported having clients express regret over pressing charges due to the distress of appearing, even if they won their case.
All but one of the advocates reported having clients express regret over pressing charges due to the distress of appearing, even if they won their case.
Court retraumatization harms survivors who are already dealing with the physical and mental health effects from abuse. On top of their own recovery, those who press charges make incredible sacrifices to pursue justice. They risk loss of salary and employment to participate in court proceedings. In cases of domestic violence involving children, survivors often risk losing custody of their kids. All of which further discourages people from reporting abuse.
And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Three years after Chanel Miller’s trying experience, the nation witnessed an empowering antithesis to her courtroom retraumatization. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina presided over the trial of the now-convicted Larry Nassar, which placed her in charge of the courtroom experiences of 135 young gymnasts he assaulted under the guise of medical treatment. Judge Aquilina allowed survivors to decide for themselves how they preferred to participate in testimony and settlement proceedings, if at all. Multiple survivors found having personal agency throughout the trial to be a source of healing rather than a source of additional trauma.
While we wait for long-term transformation of US court systems, legal teams can follow in Judge Aquilina’s footsteps and choose to conduct trauma-informed trials that allow for justice to be served without harming the health and safety of survivors. Courts can cultivate trauma-informed experiences for survivors by providing expansive social and counseling services, continuous self-agency over participation in court procedures, and protection from their abusers and legal opponents. As Katirai points out, “the way individuals experience the law is as important as the substance of the law itself.”
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