The Systemic Layers of Institutional Abuse

Understanding  “what is Institutional Abuse?” is the first step to healing.

The weight of responsibility for an Institution is far greater than any individual’s because of the Institution’s wide-reaching potential impact, its professional, and therefore, authoritarian standing, and its pervasive influence within its own organization, and significantly, upon other organizations and individuals. When an Institution has been informed of maltreatment and has verified it, in part or in full, it is incumbent upon the Institution to hold leadership to account, rectify the maltreatment, provide reparations to the victim commensurate to the harm done, and insure that it never happens again. However, often the Institution denies such victim abuse, justifies it, and/or stalls implementing consequences upon the perpetrators and reparations to the victims through avoidance actions that can take several forms:  

  • taking time to ‘educate’ the perpetrators(s)
  • saving the perpetrators’ reputations for reasons of fearing reprisals,
  • fear of jeopardizing employment standing,
  • protecting academic or therapeutic titles or status.

The more this secondary maltreatment of Institutional Abuse and psychological trauma winds its way through the systemic layers of the Institution, the more insidious and pervasive the harm to the victim.  Institutional abuse and psychological trauma carried out in avoiding the perpetrators’ responsibility and consequences, with reparations to the victim, creates Double Abuse and escalates Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dynamics of Double Abuse

Psychological dynamics of abuse show up in many Institutional structures and cultures, causing a regular occurrence of what we have just defined as Double Abuse. Double Abuse becomes systemically embedded in the atmosphere, activities, leadership, and reactions toward others who are routinely put into downgraded positions.

These manipulations have subtle purposes:

  • maintaining preferential treatment,
  • protecting status,
  • exerting dominance,
  • while simultaneously avoiding liability.

The organizational structure of such Institutions is designed to support individual members of it by denying, reversing blame, justifying, lying, diverting, or masking guilt by offering partial or weak apologies. These tactics actually exploit the victim. Any of these secondary reactions to Primary Abuse on the part of an Institution is an urgent signal of a much deeper problem: actual abuse is taking place at one or more systemic layers within the structure of the Institution.  

Institutional abuse often presents itself as righteous indignation or hierarchical or patriarchal preferential treatment, but in actuality the abuse is organized immorality by a collection of people who deserve the consequence of public outcry and financial liability. Anything that avoids public acknowledgement and subsequent reparations to the victim becomes Double Abuse at the highest level.

Ill effects of Reaching Out

The ill effects of this high-handed authority upon such victims is the escalation of PTSD into even greater CPTSD. The victim may be reaching out in the hope that family, friends, or Institutional Leaders will seek to do what is right, seek mercy and justice, but what occurs instead is exponentially worse: the escalation of rejection and the denial of responsibility, which results in a far greater reach of disapproval of the victim’s story (rather than acceptance), and causes varying degrees of the victim’s emotional and physical collapse, disease, depression, and greater isolation.

Exploiting the Victim

In one of the most damaging and insidious forms of Institutional Abuse, members of the Institution may even employ self-aggrandizing tactics to become the “hero,” perceiving or presenting themselves as noble in the broadest sense, which masks their continued overpowering of or scapegoating of the victim. These tactics may lead to the appearance of an organized educational process or service, but, in fact, they stall or escape consequences for perpetrators, protecting those who are guilty. In doing so, they take over the victim’s story, re-traumatizing her for their own benefit.  Public acknowledgement or wrongdoing, accountability, and consequences to the perpetrators with appropriate reparations to victims in a timely manner is the only process with moral congruence and integrity.

How to Identify a Defensive Mindset

In general, when a person has done harm innocently or inadvertently and that harm is brought to his or her attention, he will not become defensive, deny, or avoid the topic of his actions. Instead, he will take the time and make the effort to understand what his actions have provoked and make changes, offer amends, and craft reparations. He will “work” with his own defenses.  

By contrast, when someone’s actions are abusive in nature and those behaviors are based upon a person’s mal-developed character structure, he will not be flexible enough or self-reflective enough to own his own actions. Instead, the opposite occurs, meaning that either he deflects, makes excuses, and justifies shifting the blame. When the alleged perpetrator(s) does not demonstrate immediate remorse and empathy measurable in the form of behavioral change and an accompanying attitude seeking to provide reparations equal to the harm done, it is a sign that confirms abusive thinking. In the process, he intensifies the abuse, and uses his defenses to become focused on retaliation through harmful positions of influence, status, power, control, and covert or overt heavy-handed authority. The power brokers re-write history or create a maze of obstacles in order to delay or prevent accepting accountability and a necessary reparative process. By doing so, they discredit the victim and her story.

Signals of Institutional Joining with the Perpetrator

Perpetrators rarely change unless there is a decisive intervention where they are required to receive significant treatment. This also pertains to those individuals who join in the perspective of the primary perpetrator, which minimizes the victim into secondary abuse. When Institutions do not hold the perpetrators accountable with real consequences and necessary reparations for the victim, they enact this additional layer of secondary abuse.

Dr. David Hawkins of The Marriage Recovery Center believes far too many perpetrators of covert and overt emotional abuse are enabled in continuing their destructive behavior and avoiding consequences for the many reasons cited here, further harming victims. Justifications such as lack of awareness, denial of responsibility, or righteous indignation do not excuse abuse; they prolong the suffering of the victim. When persons of authority place the needs of the perpetrator above the needs of the victim they are joining in the abuse. Dr. Hawkins agrees that this “is the most harmful form of abuse.” He states, “There must be a breakdown before there is a breakthrough. The church, other institutions, community, Board Members, and even friends can no longer be complicit in tolerating this lack of accountability and intervention that leads to treatment of perpetrators, and victims’ protection and reparations.”

Trauma of Double Abuse

Complex trauma and its effects impact the families of victims as well. Witnessing traumatic experience results in vicarious PTSD within family members. We cannot stress enough the importance for individuals and Institutions to adopt strict protocols, leading by example the implementation of the highest legal or Title IX criteria, but that alone is not enough. Formalized protocols cannot be used as a minimal standard of correction or as a way to look for loopholes. The intent behind the protocols must remain in focus. Dr. Gwyn Erwin, trauma expert, emphasizes, “Protocols are meant to protect victims and their families from more harm. For an Institution to knowingly delay consequences, allows them to extend institutional abuse and its layered cycle of trauma against the victim and into the larger community. Recognizing institutional abuse as destructive and morally defiant is vital.”

When is an Advocate Necessary

If the Institution and the victim cannot come to a meeting of minds, it is best to bring in a non-affiliated Advocate to determine how best to protect the victim, identify areas of perpetrator culpability, and bring into better focus the intent behind social justice and legal protocols. These areas would include, Title IX mandates for higher learning institutions, legal regulations for corporate institutions, and moral and social obligations in religious settings. For Institutions, the primary purpose of ethics is to protect the organization over any one individual’s misdoing and managing areas of culpability. If the Advocate is not entirely autonomous, he or she can become a tool of the Institution, wittingly or unwittingly. If the Advocate and the Institution are not adopting the highest legal protocol to protect victims, their motives are not of the highest caliber. When either the Advocate or the Institution has divided loyalties, or are subtly or overtly pressured to take a path that serves either of them in any way, they sacrifice objectivity and impartiality, along with the priorities necessary for the victim’s safety and recovery. This lack of honoring the victim and the intent of legal and social justice heaps more injury upon the victim, and in failing the victim ultimately accommodates the perpetrators, leading to a covert collusion that exploits the victim and their families even further, while exposing the Institution to greater liability.

When Victims Reach Out

Victims reach out in desperation to Institutions (churches, temples, mosques, schools) for help when facing Primary and Double Abuse because no significant others in their immediate circles are believing them, acknowledging them, or confronting the perpetrators. Too often, rather than receiving the interventions or support they need to stop the maltreatment or to implement accountability, victims are met with Institutional judgments, systemic justifications, disbelief, or, worse, with another layer of abuse via inappropriate ultimatums that push them towards incorrect interventions and away from those that could be helpful.

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