Working with victims of crime: A manual applying research to clinical practice (Second Edition)

2.0 A Model of Victimization and Recovery

In trying to understand the victim’s experience, it is helpful to look at criminal victimization as a whole, not just the criminal event itself. Victimization includes how people deal with the stress of being victimized by something beyond their control. Before discussing the theories and research looking at victims, a key point needs to be highlighted: Not all crime victims are alike. This is the major point in this section, which looks at how each victim moves from the criminal event to recovery and getting back to so-called normal life. Whenever possible in this manual, the specific nature of the crime will be linked to the relevant research. However, the reality of reviewing research is that each study can set slightly different definitions for how they define the crime and crime victim. Thus, readers should recognize that each person will take a unique path, but there are some things that most victims will face in becoming a crime victim. This section focuses on some of these common elements.

As we try to understand our clients, we need to look closely at how people change psychologically as they are faced with a criminal event and begin to identify themselves as a “crime victims”. Casarez-Levison (1992) reviewed several models of victimization. She developed a straightforward model of how people move from being a member of the general population to being a victim to becoming a survivor. She indicated that people move from a pre-crime state, to the crime event itself, to initial coping and adjustment, and finally to a state where being a crime victim is just part of their life experience (Casarez-Levison 1992).

Figure 1: The process of victimization and recovery
(Casarez-Levison 1992)

The process of victimization and recovery

[ Description ]

Before the crime: Previctimization/organization

Before the crime, the person is basically living life – with a life history, strengths and weaknesses, a support system, financial pressures and so on. This includes any history of previous victimization, trauma and coping. This point is important, since research shows that victims of crime often have a history of previous victimization (Byrne et al. 1999; Messman and Long 1996; Norris et al. 1997; Nishith et al. 2000). Workers need to know this, because how a person has dealt with previous victimizations may give clues about how he or she may handle current victimization and trauma (Casarez-Levison 1992). In fact, research has shown that having a poor reaction to previous trauma increases the chances that the victim will have a poor reaction to new trauma (Brunet et al. 2001).

The crime and after: Victimization/disorganization

The person is now faced with the crime. This might involve walking in to find that one’s home has been burgled, being assaulted while walking home from the gym, etc. This stage may continue for a few hours or days as the victim tries to make sense of what happened. Greenberg and Ruback’s (1992) research shows that victims’ thinking shifts as they decide:

  1. Was this a crime?
  2. If yes, how serious was it?
  3. How will I deal with the crime and my victimization?

The victim will base decisions on previous experiences, current level of emotional distress and knowledge about options. Options might include doing nothing, calling a friend, notifying police, re-evaluating the situation, or seeking a private solution. Greenberg and Ruback (1992) point out that victims don’t necessarily pick the best option but, rather, the choice that meets a minimum set of requirements. Thus, a victim of date rape may decide to “just put the crime behind her” and not press charges because this meets the requirement of “no longer focusing on the violation.” Further, given that victims are very open to the opinions of others during this time (Greenberg and Ruback 1992), even the perpetrator can sway decisions. In fact, in looking at why people report crime, influence from other people was more important than their personal emotional reaction or their expectation about police response (Greenberg and Beach 2004). Thus, workers could meet victims who are experiencing severe reactions weeks, months, or even years after the event (Thompson 2000) and who may not be aware that their problems relate to the victimization.

Given that it is often the victims who report the crime, these decisions can be crucial in how they deal with their distress. A 2004 survey of crime victimization among Canadians indicated that 88% of sexual assaults, 69% of household thefts, and 67% of personal property thefts were not reported to authorities (Gannon and Mihorean 2005). Research on crime reporting reflects these different decision-making processes (Greenberg and Beach 2004; Greenberg and Ruback 1992). Buzawa, Hotaling and Byrne (2007) describe five general reasons people give for not reporting crimes:

  1. do not want to involve authorities or use other forms of assistance;
  2. do not see the offence as serious enough;
  3. fear of retaliation from the offender;
  4. do not believe the criminal justice system will help; and
  5. do not feel the justice system will take into account their wishes.

In a survey of female victims of sexual assault, Monroe et al. (2005) found that 46.2% of those who indicated they were not going to file charges reported that it was because of their interview with police. Recent Canadian data indicates that crime victims have a more negative view of the effectiveness of the police than non-victims do (AuCoin and Beauchamp 2007). These situational factors and crime-related issues often influence whether the person decides to report the crime. For example, victims who know the perpetrator are less likely to report or seek help (Ullman 1999). It would be unsurprising to find that domestic violence victims are less likely to report the crime. Research also supports the view that others judge victims of date rape more harshly than victims of stranger rape (Abrams et al. 2003), which likely affects the victim’s willingness to report the crime. These results will not surprise most workers who work with victims of domestic violence or date rape.

Once the person begins to identify as a crime victim, assuming the person is a victim, he or she will now follow a coping and decision-making path based on her pre-crime status (as stated above). However, victims are also likely to feel threatened, confused, helpless, angry, numb or fearful. They may have physical, emotional or mental injuries from any loss and be dealing with traumatic stress. The key is that the victim will likely cope using every skill he or she has (Casarez-Levison 1992).

Initial coping: Transition/protection

After the initial reaction, the person is left to adjust to the long-term effects of the crime. This adjustment can start within a few weeks of the crime or up to six or even eight months later. This stage is similar to the previous stage, but now the victim is beginning the process of putting life back together. Basically, he or she has started to make sense of the victimization (meaning-making). Meaning-making has often been seen as a part of grief work (Davis et al. 1998), a spiritual element of coping (Cadell, et al. 2003), and has been used in treating crime victims (Layne et al. 2001). Meaning-making is important to general crime victims (Gorman 2001), rape victims (Thompson 2000), and victims of any type of trauma (Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis 1999). In fact, it is often included as a major element in treatment interventions (Foy et al. 2001).

It is during this time that the victim will likely need the most help, either from friends and family or professionals. Support may help the person deal with stress, get information, and improve attempts to cope. Respect, honesty, and trust build emotional engagement, the basis of a good helping relationship. Emotionally engaged clients recover faster (Gilboa-Schechtman and Foa 2001). To be respectful of clients, workers should ensure that victims understand that treatment may mean getting worse before getting better (Nishith et al. 2002). Research has also shown that victims with extreme trauma symptoms, those with a history of childhood trauma due to sexual or physical abuse or witnessing family violence, and those who were physically injured during the crime may not be as responsive to standard treatment (Hembree et al. 2004). Workers should also be watchful for poor coping strategies such as drug and alcohol abuse, worsening of personal relationships, increased isolation or withdrawal (Casarez-Levison 1992). Further, workers should keep in mind that some victims may look as though they are doing well, but be hiding their problems under a calm exterior.

Although many victims may suffer from trauma as a result of being victims of crime, workers need to be wary of a “trauma bias” where one assumes that crime victims are automatically traumatized when they may not be (Nelson et al. 2002). Workers should remain sensitive to the possibility that certain victims may be hiding trauma while others are actually coping well. Respecting victims means that you must trust their self-assessment of their internal state. You can still provide support and education (Nelson et al. 2002) that helps your client cope. The goal of work during this stage is to increase positive coping behaviours and decrease ineffective or negative coping. This helps victims to rebuild their lives and move forward. However, if not handled well, they are unlikely to fully move into the final stage and may even reach a state of total exhaustion (Casarez-Levison 1992).

Moving forward: Reorganization/resolution

This period focuses on the victim rebuilding herself or himself into a stable functioning person who is doing well and has normal relationships. In the best cases, this may occur in 6 to 12 months; in worse cases, the process can take many years (Casarez-Levison 1992). Most people will face feelings of denial and acceptance around their experience. Workers will often find that victims ask questions about the world being a safe place, their new “survivor” role, and linking new experiences with pre-victim characteristics. Workers and victims need to understand that this rebuilding does not mean returning to “the past,” as though the crime had never occurred. Being victimized changes how people view themselves and the world, and this makes it very unlikely that they will return to “pre-crime normal” (Norris et al. 1997). They need to understand the crime as something that happened and put it together with their understanding of the world. Workers should address poor responses, such as substance abuse and mental health problems as soon as possible, since these behaviours can delay moving forward (Casarez-Levison 1992). These poor responses should be addressed by teaching the victim new, more effective coping techniques.

On a positive note, research looking at sexual assault victims shows that interventions appear to be able to help victims many years after victimization (Resick, et al. 2002).

2.1 The Basics