Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A few thoughts on victim impact statements

Yesterday’s Dominion Post carried a story about a 23-year-old man who prowled the Internet looking for young girls. Douglas Charles Segetin pleaded guilty to three charges of unlawful sexual connection involving two 14-year-olds whom he'd met online.

It was, sadly, an unexceptional story. The Net provides opportunities that previous generations of sexual predators couldn’t even dream of.

But what caught my interest were the published excerpts from the victim impact statement made by one of the girls. I think I know enough about teenage girls to know how they talk, and this was not the language of a 14-year-old girl. It was the language of counsellors and therapists. Here are a few examples:

“I feel angry, disgusted and dirty whenever he comes to my mind, which is almost always more than once in a day.”

“You robbed me of … my personality, my faith and my trust in people and my courage.”

“I often turned to self harm because that was the only way I felt in control … even to this day I struggle with not trying to do it.”

“When it’s really bad all I can do is cry and think of the most horrible ways I could end my life because I just want everything to be over with. I want the old me back. I hate myself.”

“Did you ever think of how much pain, sadness, anger, guilt and grief you would cause? I want to cut you open just like you did to me – it wasn’t physically, it was mentally and emotionally.”

“I just want you to hurt like I hurt. Feel what I feel. When I look in the mirror I see this ugly, sad, damaged girl looking back. I just hope with all of my heart that some day I will get over this without too much permanent damage.”

Now I don’t want to play down the emotional impact of this girl’s experience, but this sort of thing worries me. The girl’s victim impact statement is couched in the familiar victim-speak used by sexual abuse counsellors and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had been coached to use phrases such as “robbed me of … my faith and my trust” and “I often turned to self harm because that was the only way I felt in control”. I don’t believe these are words or concepts that would come naturally and spontaneously to a typical 14-year-old girl.

Rather than trying to move past whatever trauma she experienced as a result of her encounter with Segetin, she seems to be reliving it; almost fixating on it, in fact. Is this cathartic, as we’re supposed to believe, or does it have the reverse effect of encouraging the victim to go through the rest of her life feeling “damaged”?

In a previous generation the girl would have been given some kind advice that might have gone something like this: you made a mistake, you got tricked, you had a bad experience. It wasn’t your fault. Learn from it, try to put it behind you and get on with your life. But the fashion for self-absorption and the cult of victimism demand that victims of sexual abuse immerse themselves in their misery and dig deep to uncover pain that might be better left buried.

You have to wonder if these victims have been abused twice over – once by their attacker and a second time by counsellors and therapists.

You have to wonder, too, about the wisdom of articulating these emotions directly to the perpetrator of the offence in the courtroom. Does this process empower the victim? Please tell me how. And does it induce shame and penitence on the part of the offender, as we’re led to believe, or does it give him the satisfaction of enjoying the victim’s pain and degradation all over again? Given that most of these male offenders are indifferent to the suffering of their victims, and are probably motivated in some measure by sadistic impulses, are we really expected to believe that victim impact statements will strike some chord of empathy and contrition?

In the above case, the mother of the girl delivered a victim impact statement of her own that was almost more emotive than the daughter’s. What’s the point? Does it make the victim feel better? Does it make the offender feel worse?

And since I’m on the subject, there’s another aspect of victim impact statements that makes me uneasy. Justice Minister Simon Power, who shows a marked inclination to announce policy changes on the hoof in response to the media firestorm of the moment, has initiated a review of the law that restricts what victim impact statements may say. This followed a public outcry over the censoring of the statement that the father of murder victim Sophie Elliott wanted to read at the sentencing of Sophie’s killer, Clayton Weatherston, and a subsequent controversy over statements by female relatives of Lower Hutt murder victim Mihi Tuhoro. In the latter case, the judge cut out bits of the statements but one of the two women defiantly read hers in its unedited form, apparently without protest from the bench.

Under current law, as I understand it, victims are restricted to talking about how the crime has affected them personally. It supposedly doesn’t permit them to say what they think about the perpetrator or how they would like him/her to suffer (although you have to wonder how strictly the law is applied, given some of the statements made in the Segetin case).

Comment on the heinousness of the crime has traditionally been the judge’s preserve, as it should be if the courts are to retain some semblance of restraint and dignity. But the mood of the times demands that people must be free to parade their emotional pain publicly in the interests of obtaining what is loosely called “closure”. Power appears to be pandering to this fashionable compulsion.

It’s probably futile, given the mood of the times, to point out that courts exist to dispense justice, not to provide emotional therapy. They are supposed to be places where the law is administered soberly and dispassionately.

If victims of crime are to be given the right to express their outrage, free of judicial restraint, courts risk becoming forums for unrestrained outpourings that more properly belong on Oprah-style TV shows and in women’s mags and tabloid newspapers.

What will come next? Whooping and whistling from teams of supporters in the public galleries? It may pander to the public taste for displays of sentiment, but it has very little to do with the justice that the courts are supposed to dispense.


Martin English said...

By the by, as far as the strict letter of the law is concerned, the young girls are not the victims. If they were, then THEY (or their guardians) would have bought the case to court.

The crime is against the STATE, as it is deemed by statute enacted by the state, that this behavior should be illegal.

JC said...

I guess its an evolution from a perception that if a worst case of victimhood is not presented the perpetrator will get off too easily.

If thats the case then it would seem our justice system really has shifted to the perpetrator as victim of circumstances.. and the real victim must plead for the greater victimhood.

Whatever, I lament our courts being taken over by crying people advancing their case for continued professional treatment, victim support and possible benefits. In short, I'm suggesting there's also a financial symbiosis between some victims, their experts and Govt agencies whereby a well coached performance in court is essential for everyone's welfare.


kiwigirl567 said...

Hi Karl, Interesting opinion on victim impact statements.
As the mother of the victim in this case I see it a very different way.
My daughter was not coached with what to write, she is a very articulate ,well spoken girl. those were her words, her thoughts and her feelings.I can guarantee she didnt need any help with expressing her feelings to him.I applaud her for having the guts to stand in court and face him.
We were very aware that our statements would have no bearing whatsoever on the sentencing, it was merely a way for him (the defendant) to understand what impact his actions had on our family.The case is alot more involved and complicated that you know. my daughter was told she would be having driving lessons that day that is why she got in the car with him, she was a typical gullible 14 year old who took him for his word.
The option of giving conscious and reasonable consent that day was taken from her by the amount of alcohol in her system. this was not simply a case of sexual connection with a minor.Hopefully you are able to read between the lines here.
JC, I find it offensive that you think the statements were done for monetary/symapthy or sentencing reasons.
How wrong you are, victims dont have alot of rights with sexual absue cases. this was one we did have so we took it.
My daughter is a victim but not living her life as a victim and will not let this shape the rest of her life.We are moving on now, misguided comments or ill informed opinions are not really too helpful.
Hopefully you will never be in a situation were this happens to somebody you know.
We have learnt the internet in a very cool place but also full of people like Mr Segetin who use it for sinister intentions.perfect place for preying on naieve young girls.
My daughter is not his only victim.
happy to discuss further if you wish.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you, Kiwigirl567. There are two sides to every story and I'm grateful that you’ve taken the opportunity to tell yours in a reasoned and articulate way.

If you were offended by my assumption that your daughter had been "coached", I apologise.

I remain uneasy in a general way about the possibility that victim impact statements could become the central focus in court proceedings, especially given the voyeuristic interest of the media – or at least some elements of the media – in stories of personal grief and emotional pain.

I also remain doubtful about whether victim impact statements are effective in getting through to the offender. You don’t say how Segetin reacted but I appreciate that it’s hard to judge unless you can see into his mind.

Good on your daughter for being determined not to live her life as a victim. I wish her well, as I’m sure anyone would.

Karl du Fresne said...

Kiwigirl 567, I should have added that I'd also be happy to discuss the issue(s) further. If you want to phone me on (06) 377 7079, I'll phone you back so you don't have to pay for the call.

miss.perfect said...


I stumbled across your blog as I prepare, myself, to write a VIS for the sentencing of a trusted family member who sexually asaulted me as a teenager.
Yes it is a rare opportunity to speak out, and yes it is empowering.
Unfortunately, we don't get any coaching! It would probably be gratefully received; rather, you are(or, should I say, I was) briefly told to 'bullet point' some emotional, physical and mental effects of the offending. That's it.
A VIS has no effect on sentencing and more alarmingly, the judge has the discretion to censor anything in your VIS he doesn't like, for whatever reason, before anyone sees it. Hence the helpfulness of knowing what to include...!
Sadly I think your "get it together and get on with your life" attitude is not unusual, and merely shows that you, personally, have never had the bad luck to have to travel this path. Lucky you, Mr du Fresne.
I also think my attitude - that my therapist most probably saved my life - is not unusual amongst sexual offence survivors, either.
I am, indeed, that mythical "girl of a previous generation" you so casually mentioned - and I received no advice from anyone in my life at the time, kind or otherwise.
I repeat, it was my therapist who helped me through the very real damage that was done and I find it sad that someone with so little knowledge of how the healing of survivors works, can cheerfully add more misinformation to an already misunderstood subject.