Sexual Assault Response Teams Collect Evidence with Care

May 7, 2014

The Director of a women’s shelter embraces a young survivor of sexual violence. Photo: Amnesty International/Flickr

The Director of a women’s shelter embraces a young survivor of sexual violence. Photo: Amnesty International/Flickr

By Lily Dayton

Thirty years ago, a rape victim faced a daunting battle if she tried to seek treatment or report an attack. She was often interviewed insensitively by police investigators, who asked victim-blaming questions such as, What were you doing there? or Why were you wearing that?, explains Perla Flores, division director at Community Solutions in Santa Clara County.

If a victim sought emergency treatment, she would have to recount her horrific story to hospital clerks, a triage nurse, and yet again to a doctor. Physicians unskilled in collecting forensic evidence often did more harm than good, with brusque exams leaving victims feeling humiliated and re-traumatized.

Today, almost one in five women and one in 71 men in the U.S. experience sexual assault throughout their lifetimes, according to CDC data. In California, over 2 million women are survivors of rape—and the majority of these victims haven’t reported their attacks. But for victims who live in communities with Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART), the experience of reporting a rape and seeking help yields a network of support.

“We’ve come a long way in shifting the paradigm to putting the victim’s needs at the forefront,” says Flores, who works with the Santa Clara County SART—one of the longest-running SARTs in the state.

Organized at the county-level, each SART looks slightly different as far as structure and oversight. But the fundamental model is a multi-disciplinary team that includes a rape crisis advocate, a law enforcement officer, a forensic medical examiner and, if the case goes to court, a prosecutor. Together, the team works to care for the victim in a compassionate manner, while at the same time gathering as much evidence as possible to bring the attacker to justice.

How SART works

After a sexual assault call comes in, the police investigator is often the first team member at the scene—and the first to interview the victim. The detective immediately calls an advocate from the rape crisis center, who arrives within an hour to support the victim through the initial investigation.

“When we’re investigating these cases, we’re sensitive to the needs of the victim because sexual assault is very traumatic,” says John Ballard, detective with the Gilroy Police Department, and part of the Santa Clara County SART. But at the same time, he adds, “In our job as investigators we have to look at all sides—the advocate is there to be an advocate for the victim no matter what.”

Sometimes, says Flores, this means not going forward with the SART process. “It’s important that if the victim doesn’t want to go through with the process, that decision is respected.”

If the victim decides to continue, she will be transported to the SART exam facility. In Santa Clara County, SART exams take place at Valley Medical Center in San Jose, or at a satellite SART office in Gilroy. The advocate accompanies the victim throughout the entire process.

“Our commitment is to help patients through this very tough time in their lives,” says Linda Richards, program manager for the Santa Clara County SART. Richards has been doing forensic exams for the team since 1993, six years after the collaboration began. In a protocol standardized by the state, Richards first interviews the victim about the attack, noting any details that will help her collect evidence from the victim’s body.

“Twenty years ago, the crime lab needed a [substantial] amount of saliva or semen to identify DNA,” she says. “Now they can identify DNA from handprints. If the patient says the attacker had his hands around her neck, we can swab her neck and they can do a DNA analysis from skin cells.”

Richards explains everything before she does it, and the exam happens at a very slow pace to make sure the victim is comfortable. If at anytime the victim wants to stop, the exam stops.
Richards takes photographs, swabs for secretions and collects any foreign objects that could connect the victim to the perpetrator or crime scene—including fibers, leaves or dirt.

Afterwards, the advocate stays with the victim to discuss aftercare and connect her with any resources she may need. “Not only does the victim hear it’s not her fault from us, but from everyone–the investigators, the nurse, the prosecutor,” says Erica Elliott, program manager with Community Solutions and advocate with the team. “It makes such a difference in how supported she feels during the process, and how supported she feels afterwards.”

According to the Violence Against Women Act, 2005 Reauthorization, a sexual assault victim does not need to go through law enforcement to receive a forensic exam. She can go to the hospital for an exam and, if she decides not to report the assault, the evidence will be held for two years—during which she can decide what to do.

“We’d rather have somebody do that than wait two weeks [to get an exam],” says Ballard. “If the guilty suspect knows we collected DNA from the victim, there’s more of a chance he’ll plead guilty or be convicted with physical evidence.”

If a perpetrator is identified and the case goes to court, evidence gained from a SART exam can be pivotal in determining guilt, says Stuart Scott, deputy district attorney with Santa Clara County.

“In sexual assault cases, there are usually only two witnesses … and the number one defense strategy is that the victim made it up,” he says. “It’s pretty tough to call the victim a liar if she has the defendant’s semen in her body.”

Studies show that sexual assault cases involving SARTs yield more types of forensic evidence, and are more likely to result in arrest and charges filed by the prosecutor. Yet the likelihood of a victim receiving SART services hinges on the community in which she is assaulted.

Uneven coverage throughout the state

There are approximately 40 SARTs in California, and each is structured differently depending on the needs of the community and the resources available. Rural areas fare the worst as far as SART coverage, with long travel times to reach victims, small police forces, and a dearth of skilled forensic examiners.

“Funding is probably the most problematic issue for SARTs across the state because there is no dedicated stream of funding,” says Ellen Yin-Wycoff, associate director of California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She adds that some communities may not have partners who want to commit, or they may have difficulty coming together for team meetings—particularly in rural communities that are spread out.

To reach rural areas in the south county and neighboring San Benito County, the Santa Clara County SART set up the Gilroy office in 2009. Richards explains that because San Benito has a small population, and, thus, fewer sexual assaults, it made more sense to cover them under the Santa Clara County SART than set up a separate program. Not only is forensics equipment expensive, but the training is highly specific. “Like any skill, you have to keep your competence up. We do about 30 exams per month, so our nurses have the continuity to keep up their skills,” she says.

This situation is similar in many rural communities of the Central Valley, where victims may have to be transported long distances to urban centers such as Sacramento before they can receive a SART exam.

Though the forensic exam is vital for evidence collection, Yin-Wycoff emphasizes that SART isn’t only about the exam. “It’s really about trying to promote the best practices to support sexual assault survivors.”

For some counties, this means incorporating key community partners into the SART. In rural Yuba County, one of the key SART partners is the campus prevention program at Yuba College. In Sacramento, the National Guard collaborates with the SART.

“Each community has its own culture, and their needs are very diverse,” says Yin-Wycoff. “Farmworker communities, military communities, tribal communities – each adds a very different aspect to that community’s SART.”

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