Home Support system ‘Blind’ expert witness clarifies misconceptions about sexual assault – by Jan Wondra

‘Blind’ expert witness clarifies misconceptions about sexual assault – by Jan Wondra


Calling what is called a “blind” expert witness on a specific topic to educate a jury is an established practice in court cases, and is particularly important in sexual assault (SA) cases.

During the Tuesday, Aug. 30, case of the 11th People’s Judicial District of the State of Colorado against Herbert Lucas Scott, prosecutors called Steffanie Walstra, LCSW, Clinical Director of SungateKids as a blind witness. This means that she is asked to testify on the background and has no information about the case, the victim or the alleged perpetrator, other than that the victim was 20 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.

Lady Justice comes from the personification of justice in ancient Rome. With or without her blindfold, she is a symbol for all of how the justice system tries to be fair and give everyone a fair trial beyond bias and prejudice.

“My role is to educate so the jury can do their job,” Walstra said, explaining the purpose of expert testimony.
“I’m here to educate the jury as a therapist, I have no information on the case other than the survivor is about 20 years old… My testimony is my testimony,” she added. “It does not change if it is the defense or the prosecutor” [I’m working with].

While defense attorney Ernie Márquez objected, Judge Patrick Murphy overturned it, saying the information would “help the jury understand the circumstances of this case.”

Walstra has extensive experience in therapy: “Since 2010, my specialty has been sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape. Before that, I worked with young people with early sexualized behavior. Walstra confirmed that she has worked directly with hundreds of sexual assault survivors, and indirectly with thousands. She testified at six trials and provided background information on at least 50 sexual assault cases.

Walstra then exposed myths about power dynamics, myths about sexual assault, and common reactions to sexual assault among survivors:

In cases of sexual assault, victims report it quickly.

Not true: “Based on my training, most people wait until adulthood to disclose it, most often speaking with friends and family before reporting to law enforcement,” Walstra said. . “Another thing – people can identify it as sexual assault because of their shock and fear and shame.”

“You can assume you know this, but people wait years – there’s a process of testing the water…they tell what happened to them gradually, they say…they don’t come out and say ‘I was sexually assaulted.'”

Sexual assault is only real if someone fights back.

Not true. “As a culture, we’ve identified the ‘foreign danger’…but often it’s someone they know and care about who impacts the ‘fight back’ process,” Walstra said. “In a family or a community… when they feel hurt, there’s a flight, a fight, a freeze – it’s an unlearned automatic response. People who fight back often try to resist in subtle ways, and then this steal-steal-freeze takes over. »

She added that it is another myth that sexual assault must involve a weapon or extreme violence. “There is the dynamic of power and control. There is a difference between a victim who retaliates or who resists. We think about saying ‘no’, screaming for help, kicking and punching, that’s what we think about. But often the reality is more like, “I’m just going to call so I don’t get hurt.”

The resistance is much more subtle. Asked to elaborate, Walstra said: “It’s so individualized depending on the person. I saw him for ongoing abuse. Subtle resistance things like not showering so they don’t want to do this to me…it’s a way of protecting their bodies.

SA survivors will react a certain way, upset, hysterical crying

Not true: More often it is the flight-fight-freeze reaction. Not all victims of sexual assault will share what happened to them in the same way or react in a certain way. The myth is that someone will be hysterical, cry and it happens – or they can do a lot of normal things – the laughter can be normal, then it stops completely – going from hysterical to monotonous and flat and back again quickly.

“These are automatic responses. You can’t choose the response you take…it’s an animal response, our animal brain. More often than not, people try to resist, but the frost takes over – where they can’t speak or move,” Walstra explained. “Many dissociate – leave their bodies to protect themselves from the trauma they are going through. You see, often the perpetrators of sexual assault are KNOWN to them.

Among other things, when a victim of sexual assault dissociates, she feels like she is floating above her body. “They won’t be able to tell you anything, but they can give you very detailed sensory information. You will hear them say things like “now I can’t stand the smell of spaghetti anymore”, they describe it as if they are reliving the experience of those sensory impressions.

Whether the victims of sexual assault live in or come from “other” regions.

Not true: Walstra pointed out that in a therapy group she currently leads “we discussed in the group that ‘we live in a good neighborhood, we have a really great support system, so things like that don’t happen to us. – they happen to other people.” The biggest myth, she says, is that survivors do whatever it takes — drink, wear certain clothes, blame the victim, Walstra said. “But they’re like us. It can happen to all of us.”

Trauma, including past trauma, does not affect memory

Not true: “Trauma is an experience in which your brain absorbs things and cannot process them. With trauma, a person’s power to control a situation or their own body is taken away. Trauma is not linear – it rotates, causing the traumatized person to not remember sequential events, but to continually repeat the past.

“We protect ourselves with the flight-fight-freeze reaction and we disassociate,” she explained. “More recently, we have recognized another response to trauma – becoming agreeable to people – what it looks like is maintaining a relationship with someone – associating with the person who is victimizing them.”

Walstra said that while it looks like inconsistent and confusing behavior, she uses the visual of a blender full of vegetables: “So 90% is turning smoothly – that’s how adaptive memory works – we can brush teeth, go to work… but when your brain sleeps it stores long term memories For the ‘smoothed out’ part that’s fine – but that 10% chunk – that’s what memory is traumatic,” she explains. “They get stuck in frozen pieces that can’t be mixed together.”

She described people knowing they are traumatized, but without direction or purpose, with sensory details that bother them. “I had a person the other day who said the trauma felt like a splinter. It’s there, like you’re still living in the past, even though it’s over.

According to Walstra, trauma can also make things non-linear. How fear-flight-freeze instincts affect us impacts how traumatic memories are recalled. “There are breakdowns, it’s not linear. We hear a lot of “I don’t know”, things are fragmented and come out like pieces. In this area, we describe this as counter-interactive behavior – flight-fight-freeze impacts both how you experience it and how it is remembered…many won’t remember how many times the sexual abuse happened, or they might remember the season, or the smell, or what someone was cooking.

Self-blame is common – the “if only I hadn’t done, worn, said…” reaction.

That the decision to commit a sexual assault is made in the heat of the moment.

Not true: “I find that because I work with victims, I hear their stories. I hear the moment when the interaction – the behavior becomes not OK is sudden and quick,” explained Walstra, who said they may have known the abuser for a long time. “They say their view of that person was positive, they might even have a lot of past interactions that go well. Survivors often remember when things went from OK to not OK very quickly.

“Alcohol and drugs are part of those interactions when the victims are not fully functional,” she added. “It can embolden the pursuer. It impacts memory loss, increases guilt, shock, fear, worry about being believed.

Power dynamics have nothing to do with sexual assault

Not true: Power dynamics help the accused maintain control over a victim, keep it secret, maintain control, victims will feel like there is no way to fight this person because of their weight , age, status, emotional dynamics, position in community or church or family.

Walstra pointed out that it’s not uncommon for there to be good interactions at first, and for the prior relationship to confuse the victim, and when the assault occurs, they may think they won’t be believed. “Generally, the behavior of the victim can be confusing, while the attacker acts quite normally.”

Offenders exercise power and control over victims by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities; their shyness or self-consciousness, making sure they are alone, forcing drugs and alcohol, or attempting to normalize traumatic behavior with intended victims.

Grooming is the subtle way in which one person’s behavior accustoms another person to accepting their behavior, preparing for further sex acts or sexual behaviors. These days, this can include texting and Snapchat, any form of familiarizing and desensitizing a person to behavior control.

Often, Walstra says, it will only be in retrospect that a victim of abuse realizes that post-abuse interactions are designed to reinforce a lack of control and to shift blame from the abuser to themselves.

The disclosure process is liberating for victims

Not necessarily: Victims can wait a long time to file complaints, and when they do, it’s in safe environments and rarely to law enforcement. Traumatic experiences, not being the best days of our lives, are not recalled in order – pieces of pain come out. Many victims never report sexual abuse. Others internalize it – minimizing what happened due to a dozen different emotions.

Often when victims know their abuser, and because of a previous good experience, they don’t want to get anyone in trouble, so they blame themselves. This can cause panic attacks, sleep disturbances, poor self-image, risky behavior, self-harm, and even highly sexualized reactionary behavior to reclaim the power and control lost in the assault.