To some, it may seem implausible that an “institution” or “organization” can abuse people, but it can. Let’s see what abuse looks like in institutional settings, its effects on victims and their loved ones, and how to recognize, prevent, and heal from it.
WHAT IS INSTITUTIONAL ABUSE AND WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF IT?
We see it all the time – the multiple universities and higher education systems that have hid sexual assault or harrassment claims, the USA Gymnastics scandal with Larry Nasser, the Harvey Weinstein cover-ups. And the list goes on. So, what is institutional abuse?
Institutional abuse occurs when there is the mistreatment of a person from a system of power, such as a corporation, hospital, nursing facility, school, or religious organization. It can also take place within sports organizations, fraternities or sororities, or various extracurricular clubs and groups. Commonly it happens in the form of institutional child abuse, elder abuse, or financial abuse. It is a very powerful form of abuse and is extremely damaging to victims.
Its various forms include:
- Physical abuse
- Psychological abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Financial abuse
- Sexual abuse, or
- Discriminatory abuse based on a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age or religion.
The institution might be responsible for the original abuse, for example, when a nursing care facility fails to properly train staff members or its policies fail to ensure proper hygiene and care for its residents, resulting in increased rates of infection and illness.
Or through Double Abuse, which occurs when the institution responds to an individual’s complaint of abuse by another employee of the institution by covering up the abuse, or silencing, disparaging, or retaliating against the victim rather than addressing the complaint and holding the perpetrator accountable.
For example, when an employee reports emotional abuse or sexual harassment by another employee, the leadership responds by minimizing, disbelieving and dismissing the employee’s disclosures and doing nothing to help them. Many times, they refuse to investigate or they conduct a fake investigation so there will be no finding of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the perpetrator faces no consequences and does nothing to change their behavior.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF INSTITUTIONAL ABUSE ON VICTIMS AND THEIR LOVED ONES?
Institutions are regarded as authoritarian, professional and influential, and they are publicly perceived to hold high integrity. Therefore, when a victim gets the courage to report, they carry the expectation that management will stop the destructive behavior or practice. The disparity between this expectation and what actually occurs when there is institutional abuse is why the victim’s trauma is so exacerbated by the response.
The wrong response – minimization, rejection, retaliation, disbelief, disavowal – may cause the victim’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) from the original abuse to transition into even greater Complex-PTSD, a disorder which takes significantly longer for a victim to heal from than PTSD. The disavowal of the victim’s story causes varying degrees of emotional and physical collapse, disease, depression, and greater isolation.
In addition to the physical and psychological effects, is the potential effect on the victim’s career and reputation in the workplace should their allegations become public. This threat is often used by organizations to compel the victim to enter into non-disclosure agreements keeping the abuse strictly private, protecting the abuser and corporation from the public accountability.
The victim’s family or friends who witness the abuse and the victim’s trauma often experience their own PTSD in the form of vicarious trauma.
Why do Institutions commit abuse, and how can we prevent it from happening in the future?
Institutional abuse takes place when there’s an imbalance of power within an organization or when the intitutional systems are weak or poorly managed. An institution that doesn’t have proper structure or oversight or where staff are not trained well, supervised, or resourced adequately are ripe for institutional abuse.
In organizations where the executive leadership is closely aligned, refuses transparency, and is resistant to input or critique from the outside, the risk for institutional abuse runs high. This is particularly true when one of their own or a prized employee (likely one with a public image that benefits the company or who is responsible for significant profits) is accused of harassment or other toxic behavior.
While these are not foolproof, we believe these recommendations would help to greatly reduce the risk of Institutional Abuse:
Independent Investigations for Abuse Claims
It is good practice to identify an outside person or agency to act as an independent investigator of complaints. They can determine how best to protect the victim, identify areas of abuser culpability, and bring into better focus cultural defects within the organization. Independent investigators may recommend new policies to prevent future occurrences. Both victim and institution are most protected this way.
Far too often, institutions handle investigations of these types of claims “in-house.” The team who investigates may be in close personal relationship with the accused, making it difficult to assign guilt to them. An independent investigator takes an uncomfortable burden off of the leaders who may be under undue pressure to resolve the matter favorably to the accused.
Do Not Maintain Secrecy of the Offender
Far too often, institutions protect the privacy of the perpetrator over accountability, reconciliation and over the victim’s best interest. Maintaining secrecy does nothing to stop the perpetrator. Holding abusers accountable requires strong consequences and it’s important that institutions seek to prevent them from acting in leadership roles within their institution or another one. The perpetrator’s abuse of power should be stopped by taking that power away from them.
Along these lines, great caution should be used by the victim regarding the use of nondisclosure agreements that keep victims from sharing their story and possibly alerting other potential victims about the perpetrator. Knowing that any abuse will be made public may serve as a deterrent to abusers, as well as to keep organizational leaders accountable to the policies which create safe workplace environments.
Truly, there is no excuse for remaining untrained. Employees should be adequately trained and managed. Training all staff, leadership and directors, elders or other governance boards about abuse and the policies most effective at protecting against it is essential.
Here at MEND, we typically respond to institutional abuse in the corporate or religious setting where harassment or sexual abuse remain undercover and the victim is harmed futher by the institutional response or non-response. By training these institutions about covert emotional abuse, they can learn to identify hostile work environments or relationships that might otherwise go undetected. At the same time, it’s essential for institutions to understand the meaning of “double abuse” and the types of responses that will cause significant harm to victims and also open up the organization to greater liability. By making them aware of the danger of harmful responses to victims as well as the proper protocols for responding with compassion and in a trauma-informed matter, organizations can prevent Double Abuse.
How can you identify institutional abuse and what should you do if you suspect someone is a victim of it?
The signs of institutional abuse will vary depending on the type of institution. For example, the signs of institutional abuse in nursing homes for the elderly differ than those in the corporate setting for sexual abuse claims. Both share an organizational structure which is designed to support individual members of it by denying, reversing blame, justifying, lying, diverting, or masking guilt by offering partial or weak apologies and exploiting the victim.
If the organization doesn’t have a process for investigating complaints while protecting the one who is complaining, proceed with caution. It might be best to consult legal counsel first and foremost to help you identify best steps for reporting the abuse and getting redress.
How can victims get help and rebuild their lives after experiencing institutional abuse?
Getting out of the toxic environment is one of the healthiest things you can do. Also, you might consider reporting the abuse to outside agencies with the support of competent legal counsel who can help to protect you. And always, take care of yourself – you deserve it. Remember, the abuse is not your fault.