Trauma-Informed: Junk Science

Trauma-informed concepts were originally developed to help counselors and therapists assist persons who had experienced life-threatening events, such as human trafficking or forcible rape. But now, trauma-informed precepts are being used by detectives and investigators as a way to explain away inconsistencies in complainants’ accounts.

As documented in the report, Trauma-Informed Theories Disguised as Evidence, trauma-informed concepts in the investigative context embody five scientific flaws:

  1. “Trauma-informed” is used to explain an ever-expanding array of symptoms and behaviors, some of which are not based on research.
  2. Applies concepts like “tonic immobility” to situations that are not life-threatening.
  3. Presumes that failure to remember details of incidents is caused by trauma, not alcohol-induced black-outs or other factors.
  4. Asserts that stressful events impair memory, when research shows such events may actually enhance recall.
  5. Ignores complainants’ vulnerability to post-event suggestions by friends and advocates.

As a result, investigators become susceptible to “tunnel vision,” decision-makers disregard exculpatory evidence, and the presumption of innocence is lost.

Lies Should be Seen as Evidence of the Truth

Trauma-informed investigations employ a circular, self-serving logic:

  1. The “victim” is presumed to have experienced a serious, life-threatening assault.
  2. Any inconsistencies in the “victim’s” testimony is ascribed to the “trauma” of the incident.
  3. The investigator is expected to not seriously consider the possibility of mental illness, a false allegation, or alcohol-related memory loss.

The bias of “trauma-informed” is so open that the accuser is actually referred to as a “victim,” not a “complainant.”

Trauma Informed Investigations Invite Lawsuits

Trauma-Informed investigators regard inconsistent and contradictory statements as evidence that the complainant was a victim. Such facially biased investigations invite lawsuits by aggrieved citizens. These are two examples:

  • The City of Charleston, SC settled a lawsuit with a man who had been wrongfully arrested and charged with rape. The suit claimed the investigator had evidence contradicting the complainant’s statement, and the investigative report lacked sufficient evidence to back up the rape allegation.  A jury acquitted the man after a four-day trial.  The man was awarded $85,000.
  • In New York, a man was accused of non-consensual sexual assault. He later filed a lawsuit against Chantelle Cleary, who had conducted the investigation, alleging bias.  In the decision in favor of the accused man, Judge Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald strongly criticized the investigator who “admittedly altered the facts as reported to her.”  The judge concluded, “An impartial investigation performed by bias-free investigators is the substantive foundation” of a legal proceeding.

Bhatt and Brandon: A Review of ‘Understanding the Neurobiology of Trauma and Implications for Interviewing Victims’

Behavioral neuroscientists Sujeeta Bhatt and Susan Brandon have summarized the research in their CPI White Paper:

“The impacts of trauma on memories and recall are widely variable. The stress accompanying and resulting from trauma may produce strong memories, impair memories, have no effect on memories, or increase the possibility of false memories. Sometimes people remember more than what was there and sometimes less. In addition, the types of effects that stress exerts on memory appear to depend critically on several factors related to the person (such as a history of previous assaults) and the nature of the experience, such as whether the attack was by a stranger, included weapons, and resulted in physical injury, and even whether or not the victim disclosed information about the assault. ” (full citations available in the White Paper)

Bhatt and Brandon conclude:

“Current data do not support the notion that trauma memories are different from other autobiographical memories – in fact, research shows that trauma and non-trauma memories do not differ, at least in healthy populations…There is some evidence that fear memories are richer in sensory details…The notion that trauma victims/witnesses should be interviewed differently than non-trauma victims/witnesses because of different memory processes is not supported by science.”

Meissner and Lyles: Importance of Training Investigators in Evidence-Based Approaches to Interviewing

Professors Christian Meissner and Adrienne Lyles of Iowa State University conducted a detailed scientific review of trauma-informed interviewing methods, which was published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. The authors conclude:

    • “We know of no scientific studies that support this contention of neurobiological response differences between perpetrators and victims.”
    • “There is no available research known to the current authors that would support such claims” that the victim may experience physiological reactions to trauma such as “shortness of breath, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, muscle rigidity and/or pain, light-headedness and/or headache, tonic immobility, dissociation, etc.”
    • “A search of the available research literature yielded no published, peer-reviewed studies on the efficacy or effectiveness of FETI [Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews].”

Air Force Office of Special Investigations

One of the “trauma-informed” approaches is known as the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI). A 2015 analysis by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations reached this conclusion:

“Given the lack of empirical evidence on FETI’s effectiveness, and the large number of investigative, professional and scientific concerns regarding FETI and FETI training, the Air Force does not consider FETI as a viable option for investigative interviewing. We believe it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to discontinue the use of a robust, well-studied, effective, and empirically-validated interviewing method that is supported by the latest scientific research (the Cognitive Interview), in favor of an interviewing method that is loosely constructed, is based on flawed science, makes unfounded claims about its effectiveness, and has never once been tested, studied, researched or validated.”

Scientists and Psychologists Speak Out

Numerous scientists and psychologists have issued statements that contradict trauma-informed precepts:

  • “These data suggest that traumatic events are likely to be well remembered….Corroboration for this point comes from studies in which perpetrators of sexual assault had chosen to videotape their horrific deeds, or, in other cases, to photograph their sex crimes. Later, these electronic records came to light as part of the investigation and prosecution, allowing researchers to compare the victims’ memory to these records. The recollection was overall quite accurate.” — Daniel Reisberg, Professor of Psychology, Reed College, and Friderike Heuer, attorney 
  • “Neuroscience research does not support [the] claim that high levels of stress hormones impair memory for traumatic experience….The notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support.” – Richard McNally, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
  • With alcohol-induced memory fragmentation, attempts to reconstruct events are “very vulnerable to post-event suggestion.” “The universities are under enormous pressure to do something about sexual assault, and they sometimes fill these offices with people whose bias and agendas lead them to create victimhood.” — Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Irvine
  • “FETI [Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews] do not represent a clinical best practice standards for the assessment of trauma related memories; FETI does not represent a valid scientific representation of the nature of neurobiology, brain functioning and human memory. Put bluntly, there is NO scientific evidence to support the idea that FETI should offered as a valid clinical method for working with victims of trauma.” Charles A. Morgan, MD, Forensic Psychiatrist, University of New Haven
  • “Hopper (Dec 2012), Lisak (2009), and Strand’s claims that the “cognitive brain” (i.e., the prefrontal cortex) is impaired during traumatic events (leading to only perceptual encoding of information) are at best exaggerated and at worst misleading. Instead, the available research suggests that chronic stress or trauma (associated with PTSD and/or depression) can both impair and facilitate the functioning of prefrontal cortex and hippocampal regions, while producing heightened activity in the amygdala.” – Christian Meissner, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University
  • “To date, FETI evidently has not been studied with rigorous empirical testing; has not been subjected to formal peer review and publication; does not have a known or potential error rate; and does not clearly enjoy widespread acceptance within the forensic and law enforcement community.” – Daniel J. Neller, PsyD, Operational Psychologist
  • “This is unproven theory that is considered controversial by modern memory researchers…We must point out that the concept of ‘repressed memory’ has been abandoned by mainstream psychology since it has not been scientifically validated. We must also point out that ‘recovered memories’ of trauma have been repeatedly attacked in court, where it has been shown that many so-called recovered memories are actually fabrications based on suggestive interviewing and psychotherapy practices.” Linda S. Estes, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Jeane M. Lambrecht, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Junk Science

Credible research points to the notion that someone who experiences a traumatic, life-threatening sexual assault can respond in a variety of ways. He or she may or may not react in the same manner as others, may or may not be withdrawn and quiet, and may recall the various details of the incident in different ways. Furthermore, inconsistencies in a complainant’s statements may indicate the excessive ingestion of alcohol, or may be suggestive of a mistaken allegation.

But this is not what trauma-informed advocates claim. Journalist Emily Yoffe has highlighted the junk science that permeates trauma-informed thinking:

The result is not only a system in which some men are wrongly accused and wrongly punished. It is a system vulnerable to substantial backlash. University professors and administrators should understand this. And they, of all people, should identify and call out junk science.