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When verbal abuse occurs as a trauma response

On Behalf of | Oct 4, 2023 | CRIMINAL LAW - Criminal Defense, CRIMINAL LAW - Domestic Violence

Verbal abuse is a common element in many domestic violence cases. It uses the power of words to degrade, control and inflict harm on others. The scars often left by this kind of abuse may not be visible, but they are deeply etched into the survivor’s emotional and psychological well-being.

However, some studies show individuals guilty of verbal abuse are often victims of similar abusive environments. It is even possible that the act is a response to the trauma the accused may have experienced. In such cases, can the accused use trauma response as a defense against a verbal abuse charge?

Understanding trauma responses

Trauma responses are involuntary reactions triggered by past traumatic experiences. These reactions can make someone want to fight or run away; feel disconnected from reality; or feel stuck and unsure of what to do when they feel threatened.

People who go through trauma might act in ways that seem mean or aggressive, but it may be because of their brain’s response to protect them from danger, even if there is only a perceived threat and not an actual danger.

Challenges in using trauma responses as a defense

The existence of trauma responses and their effects on people can be impactful. However, using them as a defense in verbal abuse cases can be challenging for two reasons:

  • Establishing a direct link between a trauma response and the specific abusive behavior is difficult.
  • It is hard to prove that verbal abuse is not intentional, especially in a domestic violence case with evidence of physical abuse.

Although it may be hard, there are some legal strategies that can help an individual prove that their actions result from involuntary trauma responses triggered by their past experiences.

Possible legal strategies

Consider the following legal strategies:

  • Provide testimonies from expert witnesses, such as psychologists or therapists.
  • If trauma responses cannot entirely absolve an individual of guilt, they may use it as a mitigating factor that reduces the severity of their charges or penalties.
  • Check if the court may consider rehabilitation and therapy as part of a sentencing or diversion program.

However, the legal standards for self-defense or mental health defenses can vary by jurisdiction. A specific legal framework may be in place that determines whether trauma responses check out as a defense for a verbal abuse case. It would help to consult legal counsel to better understand these specifications.