Updated: Aug 8
Secondary victimisation, sometimes also known as double victimisation, refers to the harm that a victim suffers as a result of how they’re treated by institutions and law enforcement professionals after a crime.
As victims find themselves, often for the first time, involved in the criminal justice system, they are required to interact with a number of actors such as health workers, police officers and lawyers. Throughout the process, there are many things that can cause further distress and trauma for victims. From victim-blaming to relentless interrogation to invasions of privacy, a general lack of compassion and respect for victims of crime can make the process of seeking justice equally as distressing as the initial crime they experienced.
This is especially true for victims of hate crimes, human trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Certain groups - including women, children, people of colour and those with disabilities - are disproportionately affected by secondary victimisation within the criminal justice system.
What Are The Sources of Secondary Victimisation?
Individuals become vulnerable to secondary victimisation when institutions or criminal justice system professionals fail to support and protect victims. Each stage of the justice system can be sources of secondary victimisation; from initial contact with doctors and police officers, all the way through to waiting for the results of a criminal trial.
One source of secondary victimisation is victim blaming. This refers to the phenomenon of the blame for a crime being pinned to some extent on the victim. Repeatedly, we see certain victims being wrongly assigned blame alongside the perpetrator; whether it be sex workers who are victims of sexual assault, individuals who were engaged in so-called ‘risky behaviour’ at the time of the crime, or victims of domestic violence who continue to stay in the family home.
Another source of secondary victimisation is police simply refusing to believe the victim when they report a crime. A high-profile example of this was when police failed to believe the victims of John Worboys, a black-cab driver who sexually assaulted a number of women in London.
When one victim first reported an attack, police reportedly laughed when she described her injuries and ‘thought she had made it up’. She has since stated that ‘the experience of being disbelieved and failed by the police was as bad, if not worse, than being a victim of Worboys.’
One reason why law enforcement may not believe victims is because they do not consider the effects of trauma when interviewing victims. When law enforcement personnel gather information about the event, they may find that victims have difficulty recounting details or explaining their stories consistently. This is because, as a direct response to trauma, memories can become incomplete and fragmented. Reducing a victim’s credibility because they struggle to recall details in a detailed, linear way as an effect of trauma is a clear source of secondary victimisation.
Secondary victimisation can also arise when law enforcement treats a victim with hostility and lack of dignity. Actions such as repeated interrogations on the same topic, ruthless cross-examinations in court and inappropriate language or insensitive comments can cause additional trauma for victims. Other requirements such as conducting strip searches or requesting underwear from sexual assault victims can also cause extreme distress for people who already find themselves feeling vulnerable and exploited.
Intrusive questioning and invasions of privacy can also be a source of secondary victimisation. According to Katie Russell, spokesperson for the charity Rape Crisis, women are often asked to sign documents known as Stafford statements when they report a sexual assault. They are required to hand over their phones and yield access to swathes of personal data, even school reports, before an investigation into an alleged sexual offence can proceed.
A report produced by Big Brother Watch adds that ‘victims of crime are being re-victimised in the investigation process as the entire contents of their phones and digital devices are accessed and downloaded, and their digital lives and information are subject to intense scrutiny and investigation.’
What Are The Consequences of Secondary Victimisation?
Firstly, the threat of secondary victimisation means that victims are less likely to report crimes. This is particularly true for victims of sexual violence and abuse.
In fact, the majority of rapes are simply not reported to the police. Statisitcs show that 5 in 6 women who are raped don’t report the attack, whilst the same is true for 4 in 5 men. Victims cited reasons such as embarrassment, the fear that they wouldn’t be believed, and humiliation involved in the reporting process as factors that dissuaded them from contacting police.
This shows that the prospect of secondary victimisation can essentially silence victims. Furthermore, a lived experience of secondary victimisation is also likely to prevent victims from reporting subsequent crimes; as they are met with hostility when initially reporting, they are reinforced to not report again. This, clearly, is highly detrimental in breaking cycles of abuse in domestic violence situations.
Secondly, secondary victimisation can have a substantial impact on a victim's mental health and psychological well-being. The effects of not being believed when reporting a crime, of having to relive traumatic experiences, or being assigned a sense of blame inevitably leads to victims suffering from feelings of shame, betrayal and alienation. This can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, addiction or PTSD.
In some cases, secondary victimisation is a threat to people’s lives. This was the case for Lindsey Armstrong, a Scottish 17-year old who took her own life in the weeks after she was the victim of a violent sexual assault.
As part of the trial, Lindsey was asked to hold up and show the courtroom the underwear she had been wearing the night of the attack. Lindsey’s mum reported that her daughter was ‘horrified’ and ‘mortified’ at having to do this, and has publicly stated that she believes Lindsey’s death can be partly attributed to the secondary victimisation she suffered in the witness box.
Finally, secondary victimisation in the hands of law enforcement or in court exacerbates the sense of injustice a victim feels. As they are failed by the very systems that are designed to protect them, they inevitably lose faith in the integrity of the justice system itself.
How Can Institutions Prevent Secondary Victimisation?
There are actions that hospitals, police stations and court rooms can take to minimise the risk of secondary victimisation for the individuals they serve.
Police are often the first line of contact for victims of crime. To treat victims with dignity and reduce the risk of re-traumatising vulnerable individuals, law enforcement can be trained in trauma-informed interviewing techniques. This includes formulating questions in a way that does not assign guilt or responsibility and acknowledging that victims could provide inconsistent answers, or appear evasive and uncooperative, when in reality they are highly traumatised by their experience.
In the courtroom, victims can be protected from secondary victimisation by giving filmed statements, with cross examination happening in advance and away from the court. A range of special measures can be made for especially vulnerable victims such as children and those with complex communication difficulties.
Finally, the funding and advocacy of victim support programs can help victims work through not only the impact of an initial crime, but also any secondary victimisation they may have suffered within the criminal justice system.
As understanding of the devastating effects of secondary victimisation grows, we can weave this knowledge into the criminal justice system, making it more fair, safe and effective for the victims it is ultimately designed to protect.