I have always called sexual assault the neglected child of violent crime. It’s not always taken as seriously, but there are some major steps law enforcement can take to make the investigation process more victim-centered, offender-focused and trauma-informed.
First of all, training is key. I think police or anyone who deals with sexual assault victims has to be trained in the neurobiology of trauma—the idea that there is no one certain way that a person acts after they’ve been traumatized. The simplistic explanation is that there are different stages and different people react differently. It’s not unusual for someone to laugh during their report to police. Or someone may not be emoting as much as someone expects because there are certain things that happen in the brain. So police and law enforcement need to understand that a person doesn’t have one certain kind of response when they have been sexually assaulted, that you can’t make a judgment from how they act. That sexual assault victims should be treated with the respect with which they treat all crime victims.
Police should remember they’re not there to judge. They shouldn’t judge sexual assault victims based on what they do for a living, whether they’re in the sex trade or they’re homeless. They shouldn’t judge them if they suffer from mental illness or from substance abuse or if their economic class is lower than what a person thinks it should be. It’s not law enforcement’s job to judge—their focus should be to investigate. They should start by believing. It’s really our call as prosecutors, based on the information that’s given to us in a thorough police investigation, to make a decision as to whether there should be charges or not and what those charges should be. But it’s not law enforcement’s job to do that.
That’s what’s happened so many times in the past. That’s what happened with our sexual assault kit issue, where we had many, many thousands of cases that were closed out with a cursory investigation—or without an investigation at all. Police were very derogatory toward victims, so we’re even finding victims today whose sexual assault kits are in our untested group. They’re understandably very weary of how they were treated. They don’t want to deal with the same police agency.
Another thing that needs to change is the terminology we use. I really want to see us transition from using the word “rape” to the phrase “sexual assault.” “Rape” gives jurors the stereotype that someone was very brutalized and beat up and they have all these injuries, and therefore, if the victim didn’t have that, they assume they must not have been raped. “Sexual assault” is not a term that brings that to your mind as quickly. A sexual assault could include penetration by finger, and in some cases, we don’t see any physical injuries. In many cases, we see victims complying so they won’t get hurt or killed. For those of us who are trying to do the work, the terminology doesn’t make much of a difference. But when we’re trying to get our point across to judges and juries and other people with no training, they have to know that no one sexual assault looks exactly like another.
There needs to be a victim-notification protocol, especially when you’re investigating a case that has been abandoned for years. We want to have the most humane, most sensitive policy we can. We’re very strategic in how we approach these victims that the criminal justice system has let down.
The first time we approach a victim, we send two investigators, and it’s very short. It’s kind of procedural: “Have you heard about our sexual assault kit project? Your case has a hit. We’re not going to interview you today, but we just wanted to let you know what’s going on. We’ll come back at a time that’s more convenient for you.” We’re literally just notifying them at that point. And then we don’t ask them to make any decisions in that first meeting.
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The next time we go back, if they allow us to come back, we take a victim advocate with us, who does give advice and offer their expertise about how to proceed.
It’s important to remember that if you’re reaching out to a victim, their life may have changed substantially: They may have been a sex worker when they were sexually assaulted, and now, 10 or 15 years later, we’re reaching out to them and they’ve turned their lives around. Maybe their current spouse doesn’t know about their past, or maybe they never told anyone. Another thing people have to realize is that, yes, they were sexually assaulted, but if they were homeless, or if they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, or if they didn’t know how they were going to care for their children, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to them that day. So it’s important to keep everything in context.
Kym Worthy is the Wayne County Prosecutor, in charge of the Detroit area. She leads a small team that is investigating more than 11,000 abandoned, untested rape kits in order to provide justice to victims.
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