Investigating psychological injury
A public prosecutor in Victoria was awarded $435,000 after developing PTSD through secondary exposure to traumatic material.
On Wednesday 19 February 2020, the Supreme court of Victorian awarded $435,000 in damages to a former Public Prosecutor after she developed PTSD and Major depression following repeated exposure to sexual abuse material encountered through the course of her employment with the Office of Public Prosecutors.
The development of PTSD and Major depression are well documented secondary trauma often experienced by emergency service personnel and those who deal with the traumatised victims of crimes and major disasters.
A necessary part of the process for handling the aftermath of such events are the investigations into workers compensation claims and civil claims for liability. Some, like in this case of Kozarov, the cause of the psychological harm and the liability are contested, and the work of the civil investigator are critical components in determining the outcome in court.
What do you look for in these cases, and how does the psychological injury itself impact on an investigators ability to obtain the facts?
There is a substantial body of research on memory and a growing awareness of how trauma impacts our mental health and our memories.
“Trauma memories – like all memories – are malleable and prone to distortion. Indeed, there is growing evidence – from both field and lab-based studies – to suggest that the memory distortion follows a particular pattern. People tend to remember more trauma than they experienced, and those who do, tend to exhibit more of the “re-experiencing” symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”[Ref]
Factual investigators deal with memory all the time. Sometimes this memory is fresh, and accounts provide accurate detailed descriptions of events. If they are lucky, people made notes or recorded events on a phone – a process that helps to improve memory recall in both accuracy and the length of retention. But when considerable time has lapsed since the events or psychological injury impacts on the memories how does an investigator make sense of incoherent, disassociated accounts provided by victims?
Investigators deal with semantic and episodic memory – together these are referred to as explicit memory. Our semantic memory is formed from repeated experiences of the same or similar things over a lifetime. The events merge to form a general memory of what things are and how stuff works – like what normally happens at a kids Birthday party or how to play tennis or football.
Episodic memories are formed when we experience single one-off events that are unique, like a wedding day or the birth of a child. These include traumatic incidents like a car crash or attending a particularly awful crime scene.
Episodic memories lend themselves to a legal system that requires details and particulars related to specific events. The memories tend to be highly detailed, accurate and well retained over time. Semantic memories, however, are much more challenging for the investigator. If the cause of a psychological injury is the repeated exposure to sexual material, there may be one or two significant cases that are recalled as part of episodic memory, but the daily harm of less significant but equally distressing cases will be lost in the semantic memory where only general descriptions are able to be provided. In effect the cases all melt into one and the victim is unable to articulate any specifics.
Understanding how trauma and PTSD can impact on witness’s ability to recall events is critical in providing objective investigation services. This knowledge equips the investigator with the ability to identify both false complaints and to pursue corroboration when accounts are truthful, but the evidence is difficult to set out.
The below infographic summarises how trauma impacts on memory and was provided by the National Institute of the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine in 2017.
About the Author
Harriet Witchell (previously Stacey) is the founder of MyKludo and an experienced investigation professional herself. Harriet co-authored the award winning book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for workplace investigators, by H. Stacey and A. Page, 2013. The book can be purchased online from a variety of providers including Amazon and Kobo.