The results of FACT’s questionnaire on coping strategies used by the wrongfully accused
The Oxford University research paper ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victim’s Voices’ describes the terrible suffering of the falsely accused and their friends and family. The effects of a wrongful allegation are long lasting or even life-long.
With this in mind I wanted to find out how people cope, not only with the initial shock of the arrest or allegation, but also in the long term. I hoped we could learn from each other. A questionnaire was given to those attending the Autumn FACT conference, and emailed to all members. The response was good with 43 respondents. Many had made very full comments running to several pages, and I am very grateful to everyone.
Here are a couple of graphs which illustrate the responses to the questionnaire. The first chart shows the answers to the question ‘what helped you cope when the allegation was first made?’
It is striking that the greatest support came from friends and family and at this stage not many people had help from anywhere or anything else.
The shock of the allegation could be paralysing.
“Initially I was crippled with shock, terror, confusion. I didn’t know what to do, what to expect, who to turn to”
Some people felt very isolated, this was sometimes made worse by their employers who may have insisted that they speak to nobody.
“I felt absolutely alone and terribly afraid. I couldn’t talk to [my husband] as he needed my strength. I couldn’t talk to family or friends as I had been told to keep absolute secrecy.”
Unfortunately, many people found they were left without any support from any official body and had to look for it themselves.
“No support, practical, emotional, financial, therapeutic etc. has been offered or provided . . . by any of the authorities, yet without the things we have sought out ourselves we would most likely have cracked under the strain.”
The second graph illustrates the answers to the question ‘what has helped you in the longer term?’
It seems that after the initial shock people were beginning to find other sources of help to enable them to cope. At this stage many had become aware of the work of FACT. One described how FACT was there for them in their darkest moment.
“. . . that was one of the darkest and most frightening moments of desperation I have ever experienced, yet [FACT email contact] held out his hand to me, grabbed on, and kept me afloat.”
Another person commented that they wish they had known about FACT sooner.
“With hindsight, the knowledge and support available from FACT (and other groups) especially good defence teams that specialise, would have been very useful before the trial!”
It was striking that so many wrote such full accounts of their suffering and it seems there is a deep need to talk about our experiences with those who have been in the same situation. Seven people mentioned the usefulness of being able to share their experiences with other FACT members in similar circumstances and perhaps this is something that FACT can facilitate.
15 people coped by ‘taking control’ to some extent. Some did this by working with their defence teams and researching the allegation. Others regained their sense of purpose and self-worth by supporting other wrongly accused people or by campaigning for better treatment of victims of false allegations.
The importance of good specialist advice by a legal team that believed in their innocence was mentioned. To have an advocate who is fighting for you and is clearly on your side is very encouraging. FACT can provide contact details of specialist solicitors who are known to have a good track record.
The right mental attitude also helped many. One wrote about the need to control anxiety by compartmentalising it, keeping it in a separate mental space. Another couple decided that they would only discuss the allegations during a particular time of the day. Another strategy was to try to live in the moment, or practise the technique of ‘mindfulness’. Some coped by trying to find some good in the awfulness of the situation.
“In time we came to realise that some good could come out of our suffering, we were closer to each other and our family and realised what really mattered in life.”
Others developed distraction techniques, to take their mind off constantly worrying about the future, or feeling angry about the injustice of their condition. These included listening to music, watching films or TV, going for long walks or visiting friends. Some went on holiday or had days out. One person took up long distance running.
The final graph shows the answers to the questions, ‘if you sought help from any professionals, can you tell us if they were counsellors, doctors, faith leaders, complementary therapists or been for mindfulness training?’ and ‘how helpful did you find them?’
GPs were the professionals that were most commonly found to be supportive. In view of the many comments made about the helpfulness of GPs I would recommend that everybody who is wrongly accused visits their doctor.
“Our GP was wonderful. She never doubted my innocence, and when we felt suicidal, she came to see us on a Saturday morning when she was off duty.”
Some people benefited from medication, and there should be no shame in making use of this particular kind of support.
“Eventually I went on a low dose of [an antidepressant] and after a week of taking them I suddenly realised I felt better, more like my normal self. . . . I stayed on them for about a year after the case was over, then gradually came off them and have been able to cope without them ever since.”
Counsellors were a mixed bag. Some found them very good, because they could offload their anger and hurt to someone outside their family or they helped them develop coping strategies.
“My counsellor was very helpful to me, giving me the chance to talk, cry, rave, rant without worrying how my feelings would make the other person feel.”
But one had a very different experience.
“Counsellor was terrible; they only reported our meeting to the police as they felt I must be guilty and they had to report a possible danger to others.”
This isn’t to say that counselling is a bad idea, but it comes with a health warning. It’s important to check what confidentiality policy your counsellor has before revealing information you wouldn’t want shared.
The same warning applies to those seeking spiritual help from their faith leader. After seeing their priest one person found themselves subjected to safeguarding measures. One couple coped by going to churches outside their Diocese, involving a round trip of 80 miles.
“We had to seek spiritual support outside our Diocese as we were not allowed to worship in our own diocese unless we had a risk assessment, which in my case would have almost certainly resulted in an humiliating “safety agreement”.
The last part of the questionnaire left a space for people to make general comments. Some spoke of their anger that the justice system seemed to favour the accuser.
“The fact that the law is changing with the statements “you will be believed” is extremely hurtful. . . .”
“I have tried to get the police to investigate the complainant for seeking to pervert the course of justice, and perjury, but they have refused.”
Others wrote about the enduring pain of being wrongfully accused.
“We are different, we are permanently damaged and although the scars are fading slightly we cannot see a time that they will be completely gone.”
Some gave advice to the wrongly accused.
“Always be professional with others and keep diaries.”
“Do not talk to the media, keep low on medication, drugs and alcohol.”
One thing is clear. The wrongly accused don’t get enough support, especially in the initial stages of being investigated. Support from employers, unions, faith leaders and counsellors is patchy, and often falls very short of what is needed. Many are left struggling. FACT’s work is absolutely vital.
A FACTsheet distilling the essence of our members responses is available here Strategies for coping emotionally after a wrongful allegation of child sexual abuse
The full (23 page) detailed report on the questionnaire is available here.
The Oxford University research paper ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victim’s Voices’ can be downloaded here.