Topeka, Kan. — Paula Walters had 14 medical diagnoses and at one point took 22 different medications. She had vision, stomach and heart problems. Even walking up stairs or talking came hard.
The most common diagnosis was aggressive multiple sclerosis. But Walters, who is a paramedic, said that just didn’t seem right. She was misdiagnosed and lost her job and her driver’s license because of it. It took over a decade before she was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from a near-fatal strangulation in a domestic violence incident.
Walters, now off medication and back at work, joined Rachel Ramirez to teach Kansas first responders how to best deal with survivors of domestic violence. The one-day seminar in Emporia focused on trauma-informed policing and the effect brain injuries and strangulation have on survivors of domestic or sexual violence.
Police could think someone is lying or exaggerating details about an incident if they keep changing their story. But Walters said that’s normal. When police investigate shootings, officers are not interviewed until 48 to 72 hours after the incident.
“That’s because memories get jumbled up in a traumatic event,” said Walters, founder of the group Standing Courageous. “So if we’re doing that for police officers, why are we not doing the same for (others)?”
Ramirez, director of health and disability programs at the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said giving survivors time after traumatic events can make the details more accurate. She said brain and strangulation injuries can cause memory loss and people do remember things over time. When football players are suspected of having a concussion, doctors will ask the player simple questions like “What are you doing? What day of the week is this? What game are you playing?”
“Nobody thinks that the NFL players are faking it,” Ramirez said. “This is really about better understanding science and better understanding scientifically and biologically how our brains work.”
The training was also given to prosecutors, community-based advocates, forensic interviewers and even forensic laboratory personnel. Involving multiple industries helps because survivors deal with all types of professionals. Ramirez has heard from community advocates that survivors could get into treatment programs, but if injuries are undiagnosed it can be harder for them to complete because “neurological damage and brain injury … could be playing a role in the behaviors and the actions” of a victim. Knowing the proper diagnosis would allow service providers to more adequately help that person.
She said over 80% of survivors said they were strangled and over 80% said they were hit in the head. Some may seem minor, but Ramirez hates “to use the word minor when you’re talking about assaults.”
When police questioned Walters in the hospital, they downplayed the extent of her injuries to only a couple of bruises, she said, but injuries from that incident have life-long consequences.
The two women said police officers tend to be open to the training. Yet they said some still see shifting stories as signs of guilt despite research showing aggressive questioning of a survivor could make it harder for them to come forward.
Survivors sometimes don’t report their crimes because they worry nobody will believe them. If first responders and community members continue to doubt someone because their story shifts, Walters said, that plays to the abuser’s favor.
“You just made everything that person has told me true, that nobody will believe me and I’ll never be able to get free from him,” she said. “I was never shamed into recovery. I was loved into it.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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