10 positive ways you can support victims of abuse

In my previous post, How to Fight Silence on Abuse? Be Loud and Lead!, I defined “secondary abuse” as the act of re-traumatizing a victim through the response to their abuse, but did not give practical ways to support victims. For those of you who want to help, here are 10 positive things you can do:

  1. Believe the victim.
    • There are only two types of people here: those who will believe a victim immediately, and those who will never believe any victim. The first type hears about abuse and wants to help. The second type hears an account of abuse and says, “Oh, that’s terrible – if true. I always support abuse victims. But before I decide to provide my support, I need more details on the abuse.”  When someone asks us to provide a meal for a person undergoing chemotherapy, we don’t demand to see the bloodwork. When someone asks us to attend a shiva minyan, we don’t demand to see a death certificate. Experience has shown that people either believe the victim immediately, or no amount of evidence will convince them.
  2. Make specific recommendations as to how you can help and follow through.
    • Well-meaning people often ask those in crisis, “How can I help?” Frankly, this response puts the burden on the victim to find a job for the person who asks. The intention is good, but the impact can feel insincere. Instead, come up with a specific action you can perform and offer that instead. Certainly, asking “How can I help?” can be comforting if you can provide nothing else, but it’s preferable to come up with a specific offer.  Whatever you offer, always follow through. Disclosing abuse is a very fragile time for a victim, and they have likely been let down by many of the authorities they trusted. If you go silent on a victim after offering to help, they might assume you have betrayed their trust. If you offer to help, you must provide the help and stay in constant communication about what you are doing.
  1. Thank the victim for his or her bravery in making a report.
    • After making a report of abuse, a victim may question themselves as to whether or not it was the right decision to report. Whether they spent hours or decades in silence, the allies of the abuser and institution will try to make the victim second guess the decision to come forward. The victim will wonder, Was coming forward worth the secondary abuse? Who did I help?” There is a silent majority that is grateful for the bravery, but is scared of the vocal minority defending the abuser. Other abuse victims gain strength from the disclosure, and the community is safer for it. When you speak to a victim, thank the victim for their bravery in coming forward. By telling their story, they are teaching us the gaps we have to fill as a community.
  2. Offer to attend hearings with the victim.
    • The Jewish community cannot claim that the secular judicial system is the yardstick by which to determine community support when it places its collective thumb firmly on the scales of justice in favor of the abuser. Prosecutors and judges are often elected positions, and seas of black hats and sheitels showing up for hearings can have an impact on the results. Community pressure can also intimidate witnesses who will struggle on the witness stand knowing what they face after the trial. Let’s even the playing field by showing up to support victims instead.
  3. Make a public statement of support on behalf of the victim.
  1. Make a safe space for the victim.
    • Sadly, most cases will end with the abuser returning to the same community as his victim. Most cases do not end in prosecution, and those that do often result in shortened sentences. Well-funded sex abusers are rarely convicted, and when they are, they can often stay off registries.  The victim will need community help to keep their abuser away from them. Otherwise, the victim might be forced to move. You can help by telling the abuser he is not welcome in the victim’s school, community center, or shul, even if the abuser wishes to attend a Bar Mitzvah or other simcha.  You can also warn the victim if you know the abuser may be at an event. Don’t just stay quiet to avoid a difficult conversation.
  1. Vote with your feet and your wallet.
  2. Cultivate allies and build a team for the victim.
    • The victim has likely lost a lot of their regular support network. The leaders they relied upon for years may be protecting the abuser and/or the organization that covered up the abuse. Find the victim allies. Allies could be other victims who can provide emotional support, a lawyer who can advise on legal rights, a referral to an experienced therapist, or a spiritual counselor who isn’t sympathetic to abusers. As Shira Berkovits notes, “A kind and encouraging clergy member can be a lifeline to a victimized child or adult whose spiritual injuries may require pastoral counseling that a mental health expert is not able to provide. Research has shown that victims of sexual abuse who maintain some connection to their faith or receive pastoral support from their rabbis experience better mental health outcomes in the long-run than those who do not.”
  3. Give the victim a voice.
  4. Obey the Circle of Grief: Comfort In, Dump Out.
    • When talking to a victim, you will often feel upset and despondent. You will wonder why the community has abandoned them at best, and betrayed them at worst. You will start to feel anxious and lonely. One friend of mine called this “tertiary abuse,” when the friends of the victim start to feel isolated and afraid. This response is normal and shows you are a still a living breathing human. However, you must seek comfort from a source other than the victim or the victim’s family.
    • “Ring Theory” as articulated by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, applies to any kind of trauma from abuse to cancer. In brief, it means that if you are upset when you talk to a victim, don’t seek consolation from the victim. The victim should only get comfort. Seek consolation from someone more removed than you are from the situation. Comfort in, dump out.

These 10 steps provide practical, positive actions you can take to help abuse victims and stem the tide of secondary abuse, making our communities welcome places for victims victims and showing them that they can recover in safety.

About the Author
Joel Avrunin is a leader in building technical sales teams, with a passion for technology, teambuilding, coaching, and helping people develop their careers. Experiencing the heartache of being a father to a victim of clergy child sex abuse has motivated him to be a vocal proponent of robust child safety and anti-grooming policies in our schools, houses of worship, and summer camps. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children, where he enjoys long runs down the Atlanta Beltline and hikes in the North Georgia mountains with his family.
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