Category:violence & resilience

Post-traumatic growth: Researchers look at resilience and victims of violent crime

By: JOANNE LAUCIUS, OTTAWA CITIZEN
Published on: March 28, 2017

In 1999, Peggy-Jo Barkley-Dube, 27, was repeatedly stabbed in her home in Sault Ste. Marie and died on the kitchen floor. The man who attacked her was later convicted of second-degree murder. He is still serving a life sentence and has been denied parole.

For Peggy-Jo’s sister, Jennifer Barkley, then 21, the story did not end with the sentencing. It will never end, she says.

“Throughout my life, I will be revisiting that day in 1999. I will have to tell a parole board why I am in pain for the rest of my life,” says Barkley, who asked that her sister’s killer not be named.

“When it happened, I thought I had experienced the worst. When it went to the parole board hearing, it came back to me.”

That day in 1999 shaped Barkely’s life choices. In 2001, she came to Ottawa to study criminology at Carleton University.  “To me, knowledge was power. I was trying to explore why this happened to my family. My criminology degree was my therapy. I got the answers I needed. That degree did everything it needed to do for me.”

She later took a post-graduate course in victimology at Algonquin College, which offered Canada’s first program in the study of the victims of crime and the psychological effects crime has had on them.

“For a long time, I was angry,” says Barkley. “I couldn’t see other people’s pain. The program allowed me to see other people’s pain. People have experienced something equally painful to them.”

Today, Barkley is a researcher in an Algonquin-led study that is looking at resilience and victims of crime, asking how unspeakable events can lead to “post-traumatic growth” — positive change that occurs as the result of adversity.

Resilience is a hot topic. And while it suggests bounce or elasticity, resilience means something different for every victim of violence, says Benjamin Roebuck, professor and co-ordinator of  Algonquin’s graduate victimology program who is leading the study, which won a $207,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The researchers aim to recruit between 300 and 500 people, 18 years and older, who have been victims of violence or are family survivors of a homicide, to take an online questionnaire. About 150 have signed on so far. Those who qualify range from those who have been in a collision with a drunk driver to those who have been stalked, or sexually assaulted, as well as those who have been assaulted by a partner, male or female. The incident may date back to childhood, as long as it it not currently the subject of a criminal trial.

There’s something in common with all of these forms of violence: there is some degree of intent behind it, says Roebuck. And while every experience of violence is different, it is very common for those who have experienced it to reflect deeply on it.

People do all kinds of things to cope with grief in the wake of a violent crime, he says. The same crime can affect members of the same family differently, says Roebuck. Some avoid the media, the court house, or any reference to the crime. Others attend every court appearance and advocate for the harshest penalty possible for the perpetrator. Some embrace spirituality with fervor. Others reject it completely. Some don’t see themselves as victims, but rather as “survivors” or even “thrivers.”

“You can’t ever go back to a time before it happened. It’s a new life, a different life,” says Roebuck, who has done previous research on resilience and homeless youth. “We’re trying to understand people’s experiences and pathways to feeling well. To be able to have the conversation, we have to see all the harms that are there. But we can experience both harms and growth.”

The study will look at the path to recovery and interactions with the criminal justice system and social services, with an eye to identifying what can be done to help victims of violence and improving training for those who work with victims. The results will likely benefit advocacy organizations and the prison system — people who have caused harm have likely also experienced harm, says Roebuck.

The research team includes representatives from a number of victims’ groups including Victim Justice Network, the Office of Victims of Crime, the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, and Victims of Violence.

For Barkley, resilience has meant accepting help from experienced, trained people. She says her service providers gave her the strength to go to court, to go to parole hearings, and to write victim impact statements. She also recognized that her story is a powerful teaching tool.

“I still live day-to-day and appreciate every day as it unfolds. I can be going along day-to-day and I can get a call from victim services and see that the offender has put in an application for release,” she says. “Everyone is so unique — where is strength and how we find strength. For me resilience is hope. It’s these little pieces of hope and recognizing what gives you strength.”

By the numbers
Every five years, Statistics Canada conducts its general social survey on victimization, which asks Canadians to self-report victimization for eight offence types, including incidents that were not brought to the attention of police.

1 in 5: Proportion of Canadians 15 years and older in 2014 who reported being a victim of one of these eight crimes in the previous year

5.6 million: Number of Canadians 15 years and older in 2014 who reported being a victim of one of these eight crimes in the previous year

1 in 4: Proportion of Canadians who reported being a victim of crime in 2004

65 Percentage of crimes reported in the 2014 survey that were non-violent.

34 Percentage of all reported incidents that were about theft of property

22 Percentage of respondents who reported physical assault

12 Percentage who reported theft of household property

10 Percentage who reported sexual assault

9 Percentage who reported vandalism

7 Percentage who reported break and enter

4 Percentage who reported a theft of a motor vehicle or parts

3 Percentage who reported robbery

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

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