SALT LAKE CITY — Sexual assaults in Utah are going underreported, but the work of a BYU professor is helping to convince lawmakers and law enforcement to pay more attention to prosecuting such cases.
Julie Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner and nursing professor at BYU, found that only 6 percent of cases in Salt Lake County have been prosecuted. Valentine examines rape victims and collects forensic evidence for cases. As she examined victims for prosecution, she would not hear back about any follow-up and wanted to find out why.
“We would do these examinations — we’d do hundreds — and it was rare that we would hear anything about the cases. I only testified in one case,” Valentine said.
Valentine attended a forensic conference in Puerto Rico, where Rebecca Campbell, whose research focuses on violence against women, spoke on prosecution outcomes when a sexual assault nurse examiner program exists in a community.
“I went to the conference and was blown away and thought, ‘We have to do something about this,’” Valentine said.
She, with the help of two other students and a BYU ORCA grant, conducted a study on prosecution outcomes with sexual assault nurse examiners throughout the state of Utah. She examined 270 random study cases out of a total of 1,657 cases in Utah, spanning from the year 2003 to 2011. The outcome of the study was published in 2013.
In that time span, only 6 percent of all sexual assault cases were prosecuted. That number is supported by a recent review in Salt Lake City that found police there had a backlog of more than 600 rape examination kits. Connecting DNA in the rape kits to known offenders tracked by law enforcement is often the first step to prosecution. Police Chief Chris Burbank promised the Salt Lake City Council earlier this month that his department will expedite processing the kits and publicly report how many kits have been reviewed, according to the Associated Press.
According to Valentine’s study, the most commonly written reasons for not screening a case were because the victim did not want to pursue, was unavailable for contact, the suspect was unknown, or the victim would not cooperate.
“The data shows that there are numerous reasons given by law enforcement officers as to why they could not pursue a case,” said Holly Mullen, director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. “We hear that the victim is uncooperative, changed her mind, changed her story.”
According to Mullen, the victim is traumatized so deeply, they have trouble remembering details about the incidents.
“They may not remember for several days or several hours. They’ll interview her right after she gets raped, and then she’ll come back and change the story, and so the police will say that she’s lying or changing the story.”
“There’s a real issue with training, especially law enforcement, especially prosecutors, about what a victim goes through when assaulted,” Mullen said.
Here’s a well-known fact connected to the problem: animals will often play dead as a defense mechanism when under attack.
It turns out the human brain does something similar when being assaulted, or more specifically, sexually assaulted.
Donna Kelly, a sexual assault prosecutor in Utah County, said, “There’s one part of your brain that functions in the midst of trauma. It’s the amygdala. It’s called the primitive brain. It’s focused on survival.”
The brain, according to Kelly, is not focusing on colors or details. It won’t remember the color of a perpetrator’s shirt or what they looked like, because it’s focused on survival.
“A very common response is freeze,” Kelly said. “You can’t scream, you can’t move, you can’t fight — you can’t do what people think rape victims should be doing.”
Because of such response, there’s significant memory loss, according to Valentine.
“They don’t remember what the suspect is wearing because their mind is so focused on other things,” Valentine said.
Valentine and Kelly are looking to study together with the West Valley City Police Department regarding developing a law enforcement training program on trauma-informed care in sexual assault cases.
“Since the release of the study findings, West Valley City Police Department has changed its policy so that all sexual assault cases are screened with the District Attorney’s Office and all collected rape kits are submitted to the state crime lab,” Valentine said.
The study with the West Valley City Police will be a pilot study, according to Valentine. It will allow her to examine victims from different angles and understand more how to help them in what they go through.
The training will also help law enforcement officers know how to question victims. Kelly has been able to do some training in this area already, helping the officers understand what the victim is going through and how to question them.
According to Kelly, often the officers react, saying, “Oh. Wow. We didn’t know. We see all these weird behaviors, and we didn’t know what was causing it.”
The police try to sort out which things are a result of trauma and which things that are a result of lying, which is difficult when the victim can’t remember properly what happened.
“Nobody wants to do a bad job,” Kelly said. “They’re just not aware of this science that has recently come out, and it’s my job to go around and talk to them about the world of science.”
Alana Kindness, the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, works on training for any kind of sexual assault advocacy. This includes training to direct service providers, like rape recovery center counselors. The coalition also helps provide technical assistants to nurses for a coordination program.
“That program works with teams made up of prosecutors and law enforcement examiners geographically based around the state,” Kindness said. “There’s no mechanism unless a group decides to come together.”
Kindness worked with legislation on HB254 in the 2014 Utah Legislature, which helps victims of prostitution and human trafficking. She said the legislation ensured that a greater percentage of rape kits submitted will be investigated and prosecuted.
The new legislation involves what kind of steps are being taken to help victims, according to Kindness.
“We have a work crew to help us at the state crime lab and go through the process,” Kindness said.
They will examine the actual procedures involved in the crime lab, and what sort of communication is being involved in the crime lab, with the police department.
“We want to get law enforcement involved,” Kindness said. “Get involved in education.”
Law enforcement is still learning how to have more effective interviews with sexual assault victims and understand what they have gone through and how they react when they undergo traumatic experiences such as sexual assault.
“So much of it is education,” Kindness said. “Law enforcement, victim advocates, nurse examiners, prosecutors — it helps people investigating crimes understand why a victim may not remember the whole story. That’s not deception; that’s an indication of trauma.”
Kindness isn’t the only one who says education is the way to resolve the current system of investigation. Kelly, who is doing a study with the West Valley Police alongside Valentine (after it has received approval from BYU’s Institutional Review Board), is educating law enforcement on the way they question victims.
“(Victims need to) not be questioned specifically, like, ‘Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you run?’ These questions imply the victim could have done more,” Kelly said.
Valentine agrees. “Improvements to the system include increased education regarding recent research on the neurobiology of sexual assault trauma,” she said.
Men are also working to stop violence. Ned Searle, who works with the Men’s Anti-Violence Network, works with legislators and those who have problems in the current prosecution system. He also works to help educate men to not engage in violent behavior.
“We want to ally with the women. This is their issue; they’re in charge,” Searle said. “We don’t want them to feel we’re taking over; we appreciate everything they’ve done and want to do everything we can to reduce violence in Utah.”