When doctoral student Kristi Wall interviewed then 19-year-old Sarah Romero for Newsweek, Romero was a criminal in prison for stealing a “bait car” – a car purposely left by cops for someone to steal in a sting operation. But, not long before she was branded a criminal by a judge, Romero was something else; she was a victim.
For three years before her incarceration, Romero was involved in an abusive relationship where she was frequently assaulted. She remembers at least three times her ex knocked her unconscious. Sometimes he would strike her in the face or head, catching her by surprise as she entered their home.
“He would beat the s*** out of me, punch me in the face, knock me out, choke me to the point when I would pass out. It was so scary, like you’re underwater and you can’t come up.”
According to Wall, Romer’s story is all too common. Along with reports in scientific journals suggesting almost 75% of women who suffer domestic violence report symptoms of head injuries, Wall has personally seen how these brain injuries start a chain of events leading to prison.
“I would say all but maybe two women that I’ve tested here have a history of domestic violence, or traumatic brain injury due to domestic violence.”
To say the path from domestic violence to prison is poorly understood would be an understatement. Numerous studies have individually studied the rates of traumatic brain injury in prisons, showing prisoners are magnitudes more likely to have suffered TBI compared to the average civilian. Unfortunately, there is a hesitance to probe much deeper, as it raises severe questions about imprisoning people who may be suffering TBI-related behavioral disorders.
Likewise, research evaluating victims of domestic abuse find brain trauma is alarmingly common. An estimated 10% of traumatic brain injuries in the United States are caused by assault. It is believed the majority of these cases are from domestic violence.
There is also evidence the injuries experienced by domestic violence survivors are often more severe than the common concussion.
When an athlete or athlete experience a traumatic brain injury, it is typically a singular event, especially in more recent years. An athlete gets knocked to the ground in one harsh collision. A soldier may be hit by the shockwave of a bomb blast. Assuming their injury is immediately identified, both are then removed to a safe location to be assessed and heal.
A victim of domestic violence typically experiences repetitive trauma, often in quick succession. She may be beaten in the head repeatedly within a short period of time, or – as in the case of Sarah Romero – be frequently struck directly in the head on a regular basis.
These types of repetitive brain injuries are tied to more severe and more long-lasting symptoms than typically seen with mild traumatic brain injury. They have also been directly linked to a high risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the permanent brain disease found in retired NFL players.
Some of the most notable symptoms of CTE include impulsive behavior, aggression, issues with anger, emotional instability, and substance abuse. When combined, they can be a perfect cocktail for criminality.
Even a single brain injury can have lasting effects, especially in more severe instances. When a victim experiences them on a regular basis, there is every reason to believe their life will be impacted for long after they escape the abuse.
Traumatic brain injuries aren’t the only aspect of domestic violence that can have a dramatic influence on a person’s future. In addition to the physical injuries, domestic violence survivors live with the invisible scars of severe emotional trauma.
Victims of emotional trauma at any age often turn to substance abuse to cope with their pain, along with experiencing feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and anger. These can translate outward into risky behavior including crime.
All of this raises a very thorny set question: does years of abuse leading to lasting brain trauma, emotional trauma, and behavioral issues make a person less culpable for their crimes? Should they be imprisoned, or is there a more rehabilitative action that could be taken to prevent future crimes?
For those who have already committed crimes, there isn’t likely to be significant change anytime soon. Prisons are poorly equipped to rehabilitate complex injuries like brain trauma, and there are few signs of criminal reform for victims of TBI or domestic violence. However, there is hope for most victims of domestic violence.
Most survivors recover from their physical injuries naturally, with few lasting effects. With counseling, they may also overcome their emotional trauma in time as well. There is also treatment and rehabilitation available for those who experience long-term symptoms from traumatic brain injury.
Additionally, many domestic violence support organizations offer resources for those who have experienced brain trauma or any other form of physical trauma, ranging from directing them to brain injury specialists to providing financial support during rehabilitation.