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Silencing the Victims

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

States have certain requirements for maintaining professional licenses and the laws, similarly, have requirements about reporting either abuse or crimes. The problem with both of these is that not all licensed professionals are knowledgable about their own state laws or the need to adequately inform the victims of crime. Too many of the victims are either steered away from reporting the crime or not having the crimes against them reported to the proper authorities. Where does this come from for me?

I have to accumulate a specific number of continuing education credits in the two states where I am licensed as a psychologist. One state requires that a number of these credits be in a face-to-face setting while the other does not have such a requirement. Today, attending a face-to-face seminar, I was confronted with disturbing information on reporting of violence.

The topic is one which is not easily handled and there's no magic "cure" for certain forms of violence because we're not sure exactly how the violence is initiated; is it mental or mental and physical. The latter was shown in dramatic fashion to me as each member of the professional audience was asked to provide a brief statement on their professional background. As I listened intently, I noted that not one member of the audience indicated any involvement in the specific biology of violence and it was only mentioned in passing by the instructor after I pointed out a dramatic example.

What example did I provide? Football fans are most familiar with the tragic life odyssey of Aaron Hernandez, the stellar player who was found guilty of not one but two murders. For those who confined their attention to the headlines, it was a case of the actions of the famous without consequences. There is no lack of a listing of these. Think O. J. Simpson, Oscar Pistorius, Rae Carruth, Jayson Williams, Mark Rogowski, or Eric Naposki without considering those who were found guilty of vehicular homicide.

Dig deeper into the Hernandez file and you will find a man beaten and sexually abused by his father, whom he adored, and a boy who grew up to be the epitome of a stereotypic male; muscular, a sports success story, wealthy and a ladies' man. Beneath the facade was a man who struggled with his sexuality and the rages that may have been precipitated by the crushing head blows he endured while playing football. Hernandez, who committed suicide in prison just days after hearing one of his convictions was overturned, had been found, on autopsy, to have the worst case of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) for a man his age the pathologist had ever seen. His brain was shrunken and riddled with the damage that could easily be seen without a microscope.

Where did it start? After years of football and earning huge paydays or was it seeded in the early years where child abuse wasn't reported? The audience thought that child abuse may not have to be reported, but it does have to be reported. Forty-eight of our states have mandatory child abuse or neglect reporting laws.

What about rape of a child or anyone else? Again, the audience thought that when it came to a woman at a university it was her choice whether she reported it to the police or not. Some thought, in my estimation, that it could be a personal matter revealed only to her counselor or therapist, but not the police necessarily.

Colleges have, in too many instances, tried to confine these reports to on-campus personnel and not make reports to police. The laws are not clear also in too many states, but in my state a medical or licensed professional must report such a crime or the intention to commit such a crime. Usually, rape or domestic violence is seen in emergency rooms when a woman, or a man, goes for medical attention. It it here that reporting is mandatory.

Often a licensed professional may not know of an impending murder, rape or domestic violence scenario in a home. But it's different now if they suspect violence and has been for quite some time. The standard for psychologists' duty to warn a victim is steeped in the horror of the 1976 Tarasoff case in California. In that saga, a student indicated to a university psychologist his intention to kill Ms. Tarasoff because she had rebuffed his wish for a romantic relationship.

How had he been misled? One kiss was all he needed, in his culture, to believe that she had agreed to more intimacy. On her part, Tatiana Tarasoff had no such belief and stated that she was dating other men. A convoluted tangle of information being relayed to various on-campus personnel failed to result in her being provided with this knowledge and he killed her. She died on her parents' lawn. Ultimately, he would be tried twice and set free.

Years later, this duty to warn was strengthened into a duty to protect as well, but in cases of on-campus rape what should happen? Should the woman, or man, be encouraged to file a criminal complaint or should it be a carefully kept secret?

There is a duty to protect children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations and a requirement to break confidentiality in these cases. But the audience at this seminar didn't believe that children who witnessed violence in their home were required to tell anyone and that women who were raped could choose to report or not. Of course, children can't be required to tell and, in some instances, telling might mean they'd be the victims of violence. Considering the dilemma of what rape victims endure after reporting the crime often results in silence as we've seen in cases of many high-profile men not being reported as rapists for decades. Their names are all too familiar.

Yes, violence is unacceptable, but how do you report and treat it adequately? For me, the seminar was a validation, in one respect, that many in the field still cling to the belief that biology doesn't play a role in violent behavior and prefer their psychodynamic theories. My question to them would have to be: If you fail here, where else do you fail?

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, I know. But it is incumbent on them to broaden their approach to include the neurobiology of violence, too, and refer out to appropriate professionals in the field. Not everyone is comfortable with science but it cannot be denied that biology, in all its manifestations, plays a role. How much of a role? Only better research will tell us. But even now, the literature must be read, discussed and considered in therapy. Sitting back in a comfortable chair, in a nicely appointed office (as we see on TV) and not keeping up on the research is unprofessional.

Certainly, I think, Aaron Hernandez might not be dead today and might not have committed the murders of which he was charged if someone had stepped in twice; once when he was a sexually and violently abused child and then later in his football career. Success didn't have a sweet smell for him as he struggled in a world of madness. In my opinion, the sports teams have been remiss and have engaged in incredible foot dragging when it comes to CTE and it is not limited to football injuries. Perhaps the mental health professionals failed him, too.

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