30 Mar 2015

Alternative Reporting Options for Sexual Assault Victims

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By Rita Smith

As a long-time victims’ advocate, I support both attending to the immediate physical, psychological and security needs of a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as the goal of ultimately holding the perpetrator accountable. However, sexual assault is significantly underreported, due in large part to the horrendous process victims have to endure while the case moves through the reporting and prosecution stages.

The decision to participate in a criminal justice investigation and prosecution of the perpetrator, or a university disciplinary process, is a difficult and stressful decision for victims of sexual assault. Allowing these traumatized individuals time and perspective to establish support for the trauma they experienced is a critical step for all parties involved. While anonymous reporting is not required by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) 2005, it is an option that law enforcement agencies should consider. Anonymous reporting gives the victim time to establish a relationship with first responders. It simultaneously allows collection of necessary forensic evidence, which increases the possibility of a better chance for a successful prosecution if the victim decides to proceed with the criminal justice or disciplinary proceeding option. The opportunity to report anonymously is likely to increase the number of sexual assault reports made and, in jurisdictions that have instituted this option, there has in fact been an increase in reporting of sexual assaults. [Options for Reporting Sexual Violence: Developments Over the Past Decade, S. Garcia, M Henderson, May 2010.]

It is important to note, however, that anonymous reporting is limited in some states that mandate medical care providers to report crimes. In these states, forms will include the name of the victim receiving the medical forensic examination. If that is the case, victims must be informed that their identity will be shown on the report form, rather than an anonymous identifier like a report number, prior to the exam. Anonymity may also be hard to achieve in a smaller community, campus, military installation or tribe, but the report should not include the name of the victim unless it is required by a mandated reporter.

Developing protocols for anonymous reporting of sexual assault should be a collaborative effort, including law enforcement, medical care providers, and local sexual assault and victim service organizations. Those protocols should include important information for all partners, and be available for victims to read and review during the initial contact stages. Some key factors to include are basic procedures about standard reporting and anonymous reporting, concerns and advantages of both types of reports, types of evidence to be stored for each type of reporting and where that evidence is stored, how to convert an anonymous report to a standard report, how long an anonymous report will be kept, and the impact of access to victim compensation funds if the report is anonymous.

If law enforcement agencies can establish new forms to enter data, train investigators to better understand the trauma, and gather evidence on all assaults without the requirement of prosecution as the end goal, critical information and trends can be learned about assaults in the community or on campus. Learning as much as we can about the rate of occurrence, types of assaults, and types of perpetrators can help both the criminal justice system and the advocacy community create more effective responses. Reducing the number of sexual assaults in a community should be the primary outcome, and prosecution is one important tool to achieve that outcome, but shouldn’t be the only focus.

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