On September 25, in honor of National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, I spent time reaching out to several family members of murder victims. Some survivors shared the traditions they have developed over the years to mark the day, including visiting burial grounds or viewing commemorative videos and photographs. Others told me that the day was just as difficult as any other day of loss and grief.
For Tamika Darden-Thomas, an African American resident of Newark, New Jersey, sharing her story with others has been a source of great healing, and she was eager to also share it with me.
Tamika was just five years old when her father’s body was found on the beach at the Jersey Shore. The murder was never solved. (The police never even officially declared it a homicide, leaving the family not only without answers, but also without access to any victims’ services). Following the death of her father, she describes her family “falling apart.” Her grandmother began to use alcohol in greater quantities to numb the pain of the loss of her son. Male members of Tamika’s family began to sexually abuse her and several other female family members. Her grief and loss mingled with the fear, lack of protection, and isolation caused by her sexual abuse.
Tamika experienced what researchers refer to as “polyvictimization” – multiple types of victimization experienced by one person. According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, one of the largest nationally represented surveys on youth victimization, 38.7% of children report more than one type of direct victimization, including violence, crime, and abuse. Children who experience polyvictimization are at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), emotional and behavioral problems, challenges with relationships, and prolonged psychological distress throughout their lifetime.
By seventh grade, Tamika was behaving violently in school. However, instead of receiving treatment, she was disciplined and eventually expelled from school. Her family members feared that she would be in jail by her 18th birthday. Though Tamika was never prosecuted, there is growing evidence to suggest that early victimization can contribute to youth and adult criminality. In the new report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, published by Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Inequality, and Ms. Foundation for Women, the authors frame aggressive behavior among girls as an outcome of untreated trauma:
The most common crimes for which girls are arrested — including running away, substance abuse, and truancy — are also the most common symptoms of abuse.
[…] When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed. The choice to punish instead of support sets in motion a cycle of abuse and imprisonment that has harmful consequences for victims of trauma.
Tamika believes that the silence in her family and the lack of access to trauma treatment contributed to her rage: “No one talked about my father. His name wasn’t mentioned. It was too painful. If we had a chance to talk about the issues, it would have helped us so much. I was a terror on two legs.” After two suicide attempts in high school, Tamika was finally able to receive therapeutic support. She attributes her emotional growth to her faith, psychological treatment, and her success on a track team.
As an adult, Tamika has become a powerful local advocate for young people and those who are incarcerated. She appreciates the broader movement that has brought issues of trauma and abuse to mainstream discussions of health, but she believes there is so much more that needs to be done. “There are so many young people who need to hear from other survivors who have actually experienced the kind of victimization they are going through. There needs to be so much more outreach and education about trauma,” she claims, adding that this is especially true for communities of color.
Tamika is part of a growing EJUSA crime survivor network that is calling for a justice system that keeps communities safe, helps crime victims rebuild their lives after they’ve been harmed, and holds people accountable in ways that are constructive and forward-looking. Tamika’s healing journey includes sharing her story from a position of power and growth. “I am grateful to be a part of the movement.”
For more information about the EJUSA crime survivor network, please contact Fatimah Loren Muhammad at firstname.lastname@example.org.