Press-Republican

April 30, 2013

Victims can regain control of their lives

By PENNY CLUTE, The Law and You
Press-Republican

---- — There is help to get your life back after victimization.

When I write these columns, I try to think of what I have learned that you might not know. In our regular lives, we mostly do not see beyond the outside layers of other people.

However, as a prosecutor and then a judge, I saw the layers peeled back. Mostly, people meet police and prosecutors at the worst times in their lives.

It has been eye-opening to me that there are so many people among us who have been victimized by others. Their trauma and suffering can continue long after the crime.

Many of the crimes are sexual; sometimes these took place recently, and other times they were years ago. Most were committed by a trusted person who took advantage of a child, a teen, a friend or a date.

SECRETS REVEALED

As district attorney, I learned of these crimes when they were reported to the police, of course. Also, I learned of them when jurors were being picked for rape cases and potential jurors told us they could not be impartial because they had been victimized. Sometimes this happened decades earlier, and it stayed a secret. Being asked to sit on a jury in a sex case brought it all back, and they talked about it for the first time.

As judge, I learned about past rape and sexual abuse of defendants I sentenced by reading the pre-sentence investigation reports prepared by the Probation Department.

Many who commit crimes were abused as children. This is part of the background information gathered to give the judge a complete picture of the defendant. Over the years, defendants themselves, particularly those in treatment for substance abuse or mental-health issues, have told me about their own history of being abused.

Among other impacts, being victimized adversely affects a person’s emotional health. Often, particularly if the crime was violent or sexual, the victim loses all sense of security and control.

SUPPORT GROUP

The message we see and hear is that the victim is “damaged for life.” This does not have to be. The more accurate message is: “You are not alone; you are not broken; and you can heal.”

This is the declaration of After Silence, an online support group for survivors of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse.

Much of the pain and trauma suffered by victims can be helped by a good counselor. However, it can be difficult to persuade people who have experienced abuse or assault to get help. They hope that they can put what happened out of mind, and that everything will then be OK.

Sadly, they are mistaken on both counts. They are unlikely to be able to forget, even if they turn to drugs or alcohol. Even if they do keep it out of their conscious thoughts, the unresolved issues will haunt them in other ways.

Recovery from abuse or attack is definitely possible. It takes effort, courage and time. Support from a caring friend or relative makes a real difference.

Professional counseling is very important. There are experienced, trained people who can help.

TAKING CONTROL

One way to look at it is that keeping your pain inside continues the power of the person who hurt you. Take it back, take control of your own life.

Don’t let what happened define you; you are absolutely more than a victim.

You can make the choice not to be controlled by your past, by what someone else did to you.

If you are the parent of a child victim, make the choice to get your child appropriate help.

In the words of the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, “Your identity is not the same as your biography.”

No, it is not easy at all, but surely neither is living with the pain and powerlessness that a criminal caused.

Take the first step from being a victim to being a survivor — reach out for help. You are worth it.

Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.

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WHERE TO FIND HELP

Planned Parenthood of the North Country New York's Sexual Assault Services for Clinton and Franklin counties offers a 24-hour hotline: (877) 212-2323.

Survivors of sexual assault can also seek counseling appointments, education and advocacy: