What is Polvictimization:

Several terms have been developed to describe the complex and interconnected traumas a survivor may experience. Fields ranging from mental health, to victim advocacy, to substance use have used terms such as co-occurring issues, complex trauma, multi-abuse trauma, and polyvictimization to describe these interconnected traumas.

While many of these terms are similar, they are not identical and often have different connotations. Polyvictimization is defined as having experienced multiple types of victimizations, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, bullying, and exposure to family violence during a specific time frame and usually at the hands of different perpetrators (Finkelhor et al., 2011).

The term polyvictimization best describes the intended use and framework for this Tool because it allows staff and service providers to look past the focus of intimate partner violence and expand services, education, and advocacy for survivors of multiple types of trauma. Research on polyvictimization shows that the more types of victimization a child experiences the more they are likely to have negative long-term health outcomes physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally.

Research also demonstrates that survivors who have been victims of intimate partner violence may have also been victims of neglect as children, experienced bullying, witnessed shootings or stabbings in their community, and/or have experienced death of a loved one through illness or violence (Finkelhor et al., 2011).

In fact, the connection and correlation between different types of victimizations is high, 81% of individuals who experienced emotional abuse also experienced physical abuse (compared to 20% of those who had not experienced emotional abuse), and 65% of individuals who witnessed domestic violence as children also grew up with substance-using parents (compared with 23% of those who did not witness domestic violence) (Dong et al., 2004).

While polyvictimization research has not come to a consensus on the exact number of victimizations that constitutes a polyvictim, Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner define a polyvictim as an individual who has experienced four victimizations or more in the span of a year, although they note that the range of victimizations can vary between three to 15 or more victimizations (Finkelhor et al., 2007). Furthermore, research shows that children who have experienced seven or more types of victimizations in one year are particularly distressed and more vulnerable to other types of victimization in other areas of their life (Finkelhor et al., 2011).

These polyvictims often experience symptoms higher levels of anxiety, avoidance, and numbing among many other symptoms. Through their research, Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner demonstrated that polyvictims are more likely to experience greater stress symptoms than those who are exposed to only one type of violence, even if that violence occurs more frequently (Finkelhor et al., 2011).

Symptoms may include;

■Have difficulty paying attention
■Become quiet, upset, and withdrawn
■Be tearful or sad and talk about scary feelings and ideas
■Fight with peers or adults
■Show changes in school performance
■Want to be left alone
■Eat more or less than usual
■Get into trouble at home or at school

Teenagers (13–18 years) Older children may exhibit the most behavioral changes as a result of exposure to violence. Depending on their circumstances, teenagers may:

■Talk about the event constantly or deny that it happened
■Refuse to follow rules or talk back with greater frequency
■Complain of being tired all the time
■Engage in risky behaviors
■Sleep more or less than usual
■Demonstrate increase in aggressive behavior
■Want to be left alone, not want to spend time with friends
■Experience frequent nightmares
■Use drugs or alcohol, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law

What can we do?

Understanding the prevalence and impact of polyvictimization can help families, advocates and practitioners identify the most seriously victimized children and protect them from additional harm. It will also help target intervention and prevention to the full range of trauma-causing events that children are at risk of or have experienced to provide needed services and supports.

References; Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby S. & Kracke, K. (2009) Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, Pathways to Justice, Hope and Healing Polyvictimization Assessment Tool Resource Guidebook Funded by the Office for Victims of Crime.