How Institutional Betrayal Affects Agency Investigations

Investigators often encounter descriptions of events that are totally at odds with each other in the course of their interviews.  In many cases, it can be chalked up to different perspectives; in some cases, it’s an attempted cover-up.  But in cases of staff abuse, it may be something else entirely.

Dr. Jennifer Freyd has researched trauma and its effects on memory extensively.  It is common knowledge in the trauma therapy community that traumatic memories are often repressed as a defense mechanism, especially if they are sexual in nature.  Freyd’s research has centered on ‘Betrayal trauma’ – trauma caused when someone is betrayed by a major support system.  The greater the feeling of betrayal, the more that is forgotten about the traumatic experience.


While Freyd’s initial research was based on interpersonal betrayal, her recent research has been focused on institutional betrayal.  Freyd discussed institutional betrayal at the most recent Association of Workplace Investigators conference.

Institutional betrayal is when a person requests support from an institution they believed would provide it, and instead is ignored, punished or blackballed.  In government agencies, a relevant occurrence would be agency retaliation against a whistleblower reporting improper or unethical behavior.

The betrayal is experienced as a trauma by some individuals.  In response to the trauma, the victim’s mind makes the event seem less bad than it was, or the event is forgotten entirely.  The mind employs this defense mechanism because, if the person felt they were betrayed in a major way, it would make it difficult to ever trust people (or institutions) again.

If you find yourself investigating a person who is reported to have a history of staff abuse, you may interview people who you believe experienced abuse from this person years ago.  These victims may not remember key details of the alleged event, or remember it at all. In these cases, their lack of memory may not be because the events never happened – it may instead be because the institution they trusted to support them let them down in their time of need.  Unlocking the missing details in these cases will take extra work, but validating a complaint of this magnitude helps to rid the government of its worst employees. It may also prevent trauma to future agency employees.

For more information, visit Freyd's Institutional Betrayal and Institutional Courage web page.

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