Sunday, March 15, 2015

Debriefing: Survivors of Child Abuse Testifying at Legislative Hearings

© (2015) By Vicki Polin
(Originally published by The Examiner)

There comes a time in the lives of several adult survivors of child abuse when they feel the need to do something pro-actively as a way of transforming their child abuse histories into something positive. It’s not uncommon for survivors when they reach this stage of healing to start volunteering time for various non-profit organizations that deal with sexual assault, write a book about their lives, go back to school so they can better help others, or even getting involved in the legislative process in hopes of helping to create better laws to protect children –– along with advocating for the civil rights of adult survivors. 

There are many pros and cons about going public and speaking out that really need to be considered. For that reason it is vitally important for survivors to discuss their thoughts, feelings and plans with trusted and supportive friends, family members, along with a licensed psychotherapist who has experience working with adult survivors. 

Going public in any venue about ones abuse history in hopes of helping others, is an extremely noble cause, yet it is also important to be aware of the risks (which you can read about in the article “Questions to ask yourself before disclosing, confronting or going public“).

Providing testimony at legislative hearings has its own set of issues, which can be extremely different then other types of public speaking engagements or even writing a book. Prior to testifying one may feel that the legislators will hear their words and want to respond in a positive way. Unfortunately, that is NOT what usually occurs. To understand the legislative process one must understand that what appears to be more important then hearing the testimony of survivors, is the lobbying that occurs both before and after legislative hearings. The politics of the legislative process involves favors being repaid, friendships and alliances and campaign contributions. 

Over the years I’ve spoken to hundreds of survivors, family members and others supporters, who provided testimony and shared that they felt extremely vulnerable, betrayed and devastated when the bills they testified for failed. Several survivors also shared that after providing testimony they felt suicidal. 

Unfortunately, at most hearings there was no plans made to have support people available for survivors to debrief with immediately afterwards, or individuals to follow up with for the weeks or months afterwards. 

Years ago I volunteered as a disaster mental health worker. My job was to help the disaster workers debrief after each event. Disaster workers were not allowed to leave the disaster site until after they debriefed and had a plan in place for them to continue to debrief for the next 72 hours –– or longer if needed. This sort of plan is something that should be in place any time a survivor or family member is expected to share their life experiences as a part of the legislative process. By doing this, we all can lesson the likelihood that these brave heroes will be re-victimizing themselves. 

If you are a survivor or a family member, perhaps you may want to rethink providing testimony unless this type of program has been set up by the organization which has been suggesting you speak out. If there is no program like this, then perhaps you can help organize one. It would be helpful for those who want to help debrief survivors along with others who testify, to learn how to help others by through a disaster mental health training, a suicide prevention program or rape victim advocacy training prior to the legislative hearing. It’s important for there to be follow up with those who testified as long as needed. Once again each survivor is different and the time in which they may need support can be from anywhere from 72 hours to a year. The goal is for everyone to feel as if they did something good, instead of feeling battered and abused by the legislative process.