Peer Support for Secondary Victims

Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder

As another in the series about loved ones seeking to support survivors, this article considers the wisdom available in groups which support secondary victims of different but related traumas.

One renowned group dedicated to secondary victims is the Alanon Family Groups program. Alanon grew out of families gathering together meeting with Lois W., waiting together as alcoholics meet in meetings held by her husband, Bill W., which came to be known as Alcoholics Anonymous, From the start in the 1930’s, families of alcoholics—and later other addicted persons—turned to each other for support and wisdom. Since that time, family members of those suffering with mental illnesses also have relied on the program to sustain each other.

Importantly, this is a peer-support group. The wisdom offered is personal and from the front lines of relationships in pain. Alanon members report how often newcomers arrive wanting to help or “fix” the problems caused by the suffering person in their lives. But, the real success ends up being about learning to focus on one’s own life, strengths, needs and growth. This resonates with what literature there is for vicarious trauma and secondary victims.

For decades, Alanon has transformed lives, relationships, marriages and families where great suffering had dominated. That success is not surprising because, contrary to popular belief, this program is not self-help but rather God-focused, developing a reliance on God to override one’s own will to control. This, too, is a skill needs by loved ones of survivors of abuse, because God’s graces need free reign to heal hearts and homes affected by abuse.

Another esteemed group which values the power of peer support is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Besides activating nationwide resources to support law enforcement when a child has gone missing, NCMEC immediately reaches out to support whole families, circles of loved ones, even communities.

One way to support families is through its national peer-support program called Team Hope. Here peers who are suffering the loss or disappearance of a family member are the ones who offer resources and first-hand experience to support parents, siblings and loved one who are in agony while searching, waiting and hoping for the return of a family member.

What NCMEC and Team Hope shows is that a stabilized family helps law enforcement succeed finding a lost child. Stability is also critical for reunification, which is not as easy as some might guess. In this process, NCMEC vigorously offers resources and support to ensure family members are all heard and receive what they need. Most fundamentally, however, stability is critical for all the other members of the grieving group. Processing all the feelings and the trauma either blows a family apart—or brings it together. Knowing that, Team Hope depends on the kindness and credibility of people who’ve been there and survived the trauma themselves.

Another area, which will be the last considered here, where loved ones of those suffering from trauma is, sadly, among United States troops. The high incidence of post-traumatic stress has compelled mental health experts to learn better how to help troops returning from long combat tours. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs and related medical research hospitals have advanced in an ability to identify and treat post-traumatic stress. What else are getting focus here are, first, the negative impact of an individual’s PTS on his or her family and, second, the positive impact for recovery when in a stable family. As a result, couples and families are finding more access to informed professional support as well as to peer counseling.

Peer support is a growing trend in the United States Catholic Church, too, for the loved ones supporting survivors of abuse, as well as for survivors. There are Peace Circles, and there are discussion groups, some of which are dedicated to, for example, men or women survivors, or parents of survivors. There are also a few programs offered to parishes hit by new allegations. In my view, the more the relational impact of abuse – past or current – can be addressed spiritually, the more our Church resumes her central role in helping people receive the gifts of the Spirit. And, the more we all heal.

Research into vicarious trauma or secondary victims is just beginning. To date it still focuses on professionals not family members. Resources available to the family members are also limited, but they do exist. Resources are helpful, even critical, but even without clear information we are nevertheless drawn toward healing. I began my own recovery before that trail-blazing and cornerstone book, The Courage to Heal, was published. Yet, with other survivors, we discovered pathways and found sustenance as we went along.

Here’s what matters: In the setting of our faith, we need to understand that, more and more, experts are acknowledging and studying the phenomena of vicarious trauma and secondary victims. They’re future contributions will doubtless be very great, but right now there are people who need care. They need care not just professionally, but also spiritually. They, too, are staggered by the impact of evil on the lives of innocence. This is a reality only the greater reality of God can address.

I often return to a quotation of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She said not to wait for the leaders, but to do what is needed, person to person. We don’t wait for the research or the experts to offer what we have suffered as persons to help others who suffer. That includes helping those, who love and support survivors of child abuse, find ways to help each other in the light of faith.


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