At a former job, I was lucky enough to get to know a wonderful, little girl. One day, as the time when she would have to go home was fast approaching, she sat in my lap, curled her entire body up into a little ball, and began shaking and crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she refused to answer me, so, I just held her for a while. After some time had passed, she told me that she didn’t want to go home because she was being abused by her foster father. I told her how brave she was for telling me about this, and that I really wanted to talk to someone who could help keep her from having to go back there, and she agreed that this would be a good idea. I quickly reported the abuse and, after the “investigation,” was simply told, “These kids are always saying they’re being abused.” Suggesting that this was because “these kids” truly are always being abused did not seem to yield any better result but the fact is, abuse victims are often abused by multiple perpetrators, and victims of this devastating abuse are often disbelieved.
The facts are quite clear- revictimization is very common. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a woman who has been sexually assaulted once is thirty-five times more likely to be assaulted again than a woman who has never experienced this kind of violation. Children are three times more likely to be abused while in foster care than children who are not involved with the child welfare system. There are many, many abuse survivors who can list an inordinate number of people who have abused them. While this is often used as an excuse to disbelieve such individuals, there are many logical reasons why the same individuals seem to fall victim to so much abuse. Imagine a man who was sexually abused by his mother as a child, and who is sexually abusing his three sons. His mother is also abusing his sons and his two older children are acting out their own abuse by abusing his youngest son. The cycle of abuse within this family alone would lead to the youngest child in this family being sexually abused by four different people. If this man allowed his friends to abuse his young son or even prostituted his youngest child, this number could quickly rise to dozens, if not hundreds, of abusers.
Certain reactions to trauma make abuse survivors particularly susceptible to further abuse. If a survivor becomes overwhelmed by her experiences and begins overusing drugs or alcohol, or dissociating regularly, this may put her in a more compromised position, should she be faced with another potential assailant. Some survivors have trouble making accurate assessments of danger and end up in abusive situations for this reason. They may trust blindly, as when your trust has been betrayed in such a significant way, determining who is or isn’t trustworthy can seem impossible. Others have simply endured so much abuse that they are used to being treated this way and don’t believe that they deserve better, which can easily lead them into abusive relationships. Some studies even cite the unique ability of psychopaths to determine whether an individual has endured prior victimization within moments of meeting that person. None of this is the fault of those who are being repeatedly abused- it’s just an unfortunate reality when survivors are not provided with the safety and support that they need to heal.
Unfortunately, victims of abuse by multiple perpetrators tend to face some of the biggest obstacles when attempting to get help from the police, the child welfare system, and even mental health professionals. I was once told by a therapist that the number of individuals I cited as having abused me “sounds more like a soap opera,” and, as I previously mentioned, I was detained in a psychiatric hospital on the premise that the psychiatrist on staff believed that I was really just delusional- a “theory” that was quickly supported by the police. I have had many extremely positive experiences in therapy as well, including multiple therapists who truly believed what I had to say and worked hard to help me, but it is a tragedy that being abused by multiple people is ever used as an excuse to disbelieve or fail to protect someone.
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