News and Commentary

The Junk Science Behind ‘Trauma-Informed’ Investigations
Woman curled in fetal position on bed
Holly Wilmeth via Getty Images

In a 1994 episode of “Law & Order,” a woman kills a man and claims it was due to Battered Woman Syndrome. An expert is called to the stand to explain how the defendant, whom she hadn’t examined, fit the profile of a battered woman. The following exchange occurs between the expert and prosecutor Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston):

McCoy: Does every abused woman develop Battered Woman Syndrome?

Expert: They all show signs of it.

McCoy: Does that mean that every abused woman eventually kills her abuser?

Expert: No, there is no hard and fast rule.

McCoy: There’s no cause and effect?

Expert: First you look at the behavior, and then you see if it fits the pattern.

McCoy: So first you have the crime, and then you look for the excuse?

That same principle is applied when people talk about “trauma-informed” investigations. Investigators are trained to believe that because some women somewhere behaved a certain way that defies common sense when she was traumatized, any woman that behaves the same way must also be traumatized. To paraphrase McCoy, “first you have the diagnosis, and then you look for evidence?” Once an investigator believes someone is traumatized, all evidence is twisted to fit that assumption.

This type of investigation is only being taught for cases involving alleged sexual abuse. Its main proponents are the “believe all women” crowd. As a specific example, police that implement “trauma-informed” investigations claim that women who lie about details of their alleged sexual assaults, or who continue to send loving messages to their alleged attacker, are only doing so because they are traumatized. In other words, evidence of lying is evidence of telling the truth. Commonsense is turned on its head.

And numerous self-styled “experts” push this way of thinking, even though it is not so different than the child psychologists who pushed children in the 1980s and early 90s to claim the people who watched them at daycare sexually abused them and worshipped Satan. The psychologists began with the premise that the children were traumatized – because that’s who they normally worked with — and worked backwards to find the root of the alleged trauma.

On Thursday, the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) — not usually a friend of due process — released a position statement on so-called trauma-informed investigations and the neurobiological claims of trauma. The group, which helps train Title IX administrators across the country to investigate alleged sexual assault on college campuses, cautioned colleges and universities in its press release “to avoid the use of information on the neurobiology of trauma to substitute for evidence.”

“Everyone in the field is on the trauma learning curve and needs to be cautious about making premature conclusions. Practitioners must wait for this body of knowledge to mature and ripen,” the organization wrote. “Perhaps the effective tools of truly understanding what causes trauma and what its effects are have not been invented yet. Regardless, for now, the aim should be to implement reputable trauma-informed investigation and interviewing practices and techniques.”

ATIXA goes on to state that trauma-informed is not necessarily bad. Something even those opposed to the practice, being used in investigations, acknowledge. Treating someone as if they are traumatized in order to obtain information from them instead of harshly grilling them is not a bad thing. But running an investigation starting with the assumption someone is traumatized and then fitting the evidence to support their claim — as trauma-informed investigations do — is not right.

Years ago, I wrote about the trauma-informed training at Baylor University, one of the few schools to release its training materials. The school taught investigators and campus police to assume an accuser was traumatized and to conduct the investigation in such a way that simply proved what she said, rather than the truth. Investigators were told not to interview accusers multiple times and to avoid reporting contradictions in their statements — which may be evidence of lying that the defense could use.

In 2017, The Atlantic’s Emily Yoffe wrote a seminal (no pun intended) article on the alleged science behind trauma-informed investigations. In it, she interviewed Elizabeth Loftus, perhaps the most trusted expert on trauma and memory in the United States. She likened the current dogma surrounding “trauma-informed” to the Satanic Daycare panic from decades ago, suggesting it sounded a lot like the “recovered memory” theory of the era. At that time, people were convinced that their problems were caused by repressed memories. Today, students who don’t fully remember a sexual encounter due to alcohol, or who come to regret the encounter for a variety of factors, are led to fill in the gaps in their memory with the belief that they were sexually assaulted.

As Loftus told Yoffe, those trying to reconstruct an encounter after drinking alcohol were “very vulnerable to post-event suggestion.”

A common example for college campuses: A woman has a drunken hookup with a male acquaintance and the next day doesn’t fully remember what happened. She talks to her friends or a Resident Assistant (trained to report incidents of sexual assault under a broad definition that includes having sex after drinking) and they suggest she couldn’t consent due to her alcohol intake. She now starts filling in the gaps and viewing the encounter as sexual assault, and suddenly she is “traumatized” by a consensual encounter.

ATIXA credited Yoffe’s article with bringing to light some of the issues regarding the going theories on trauma.

“Yoffe leads with the thesis that ‘Neurobiology of Trauma’ is junk science. ATIXA does not fully agree, but we do worry that application of the knowledge obtained by practitioners in our field has gotten way ahead of the actual science, that the body of knowledge is being misapplied, and that some purveyors of this knowledge are politically motivated to extrapolate well beyond any reasonable empirical conclusions currently supported by the science,” the organization wrote.

ATIXA wrote that while trauma-informed investigations and interviews can be useful, they should “not compromise the ability to obtain credible, relevant evidence.” Further, the organization acknowledged that the studies today regarding trauma are not conducted on humans and should not be considered empirical, but rather conjecture.

“Maybe one day the neuroscience will prove a number of theories, but to do so, we will need to move from studies of rats in labs to subjecting a recently assaulted person to an to verify what is happening within their brain in the immediate aftermath of trauma, which would have many ethical and logistical challenges,” ATIXA wrote.

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