A New Approach: Supporting Victims in the Justice System

Perhaps the criminal justice system is learning how to support victims of sexual assault and consequently becoming more effective in prosecuting rape cases.

By Amy Vorenberg

MNPD Tweet

The above Tweet came from the Metro Nashville Police Department just after a jury convicted a former Vanderbilt football player of raping an unconscious woman. Among the horrific details of the case—the perpetrators took a video of the assault.

When it comes to rape, the criminal justice system gets a bad rap, and deservedly so considering its past lack of effectiveness in prosecuting rape cases. Prosecutors have historically dropped or pled out cases, afraid of taking the ill-named “he said, she said” case to trial.

But maybe we are seeing a shift and the Metro Nashville PD tweet is just one example of it. The recent Stanford rape victim’s statement, which was read aloud by 18 members of Congress on the House floor, is another significant event signaling a possible shift.  Perhaps more victims are coming forward because the criminal justice system HAS improved its support for victims.

Recently I sat down with Lara Saffo, chief prosecutor of northern New Hampshire’s Grafton County. Her jurisdiction includes several colleges, including Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the site of a recent high-profile sexual assault case. I asked Attorney Saffo about the efforts she and her fellow prosecutors make to support and protect rape victims as their cases make their way through the system.

Vorenberg: What steps does a prosecutor’s office like yours take that provide support to a victim before a case goes to trial?

Saffo: First, we have sexual assault resource teams (SART), including on the college campuses. These are teams of medical, law enforcement and victim advocate professionals who have been specially trained as rape first-responders. By working together, the SART teams develop and implement a victim-centered approach that, hopefully, will encourage more victims to come forward.

Vorenberg:  Do you also work with local crisis centers?

Saffo: Yes, we strongly recommend that all victims of sexual assaults seek services from their local crisis center.  Crisis program advocates, unlike first responders, can have protected, confidential conversations with victims.  Crisis centers make it possible for victims to speak freely, without the risk of unwanted exposure.

Vorenberg:  You also have victim advocates in your office. What is the difference?

Saffo:  We have victim-witness coordinators. The distinction between our victim-witness coordinators and a victim advocate at a crisis center is important. Although victim-witness coordinators absolutely provide support for victims, they are there to answer questions and explain the process. Our victim-witness coordinator’s communication with victims is not protected, whereas the communication between victims and crisis center advocates is considered confidential and protected by NH statute. One of the things that everybody has to remember is that victims may not process information instantly, so you often need to explain the process over and over again. Victims need to feel comfortable calling back and saying, “Wait a minute. What is the difference between bail and arraignment? Why is bail being set again?” They are usually new to this system, and it is more than a little confusing. The victim-witness coordinator is there to answer any questions or concerns the victim has about the legal process.

Vorenberg: The first time you meet with a victim are you actually introducing her to the victim-witness advocate?

Saffo: We are trying to do that; that is our protocol. Law enforcement calls us when a victim reaches out to them so we can initiate the relationship with the coordinator. We have an on-call county attorney, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so any officer, can call and say, “I have a sexual assault case, a victim will be coming in.” We can then reach out to our victim-witness coordinator to be on hand to meet with the survivor.

Vorenberg: After a case comes into a prosecutor’s office and a complaint or indictment is filed, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor make pre-trial motions, asking the judge to either limit or allow evidence that they think will help prove (or defend) the case. What motions do prosecutors make specifically to protect the victim?

Saffo: It’s pretty standard for the defense to ask the court to allow questions about the victim’s sexual history. State statutes do not allow such information because it’s not deemed to be relevant, and for good reason. We always object to these requests.

Vorenberg: What other types of motions do you make concerning the victim?

Saffo: In most adult sexual assault cases, there’s been an examination and the medical record contains a lot of information that needs to be protected. For example, medical providers will ask, “What medications are you on?” Medications like birth control or anti-depressants, or really almost any kind of medication, is just not relevant. There may be a little more of a fight over medications like anti-depressants but I generally feel that I can keep that information out of the record, although you can’t make any promises to the victim.

Vorenberg: What about counseling records?

Saffo: You want to protect the victim’s counseling records. However, sometimes counseling records may contain helpful information. They may contain proof of trauma that you want to tell the jury about. Often judges will do an in camera review, which means he or she will look at the records outside of the courtroom and decide which, if any, of the records are relevant.

Vorenberg: Before trial you make motions to keep out a victim’s private information. What about during the trial? Do you take steps to protect the victim’s privacy?

Saffo: We really are in a new era right now. We not only protect the victim in court, we also try to protect the victim in the media and no one really knows how to control that right now. We can ask the judge to limit live tweeting, and we can file motions to seal victims’ names. The judge may not grant these requests if the victim is an adult, although with the new reality of social media harassment of adult sexual assault victims, that request may be granted

Vorenberg: How about post-trial, whether there’s an acquittal or a conviction, is there anything you do on behalf of the victim?

Saffo: We make sure they have a support network and ensure that the victim-witness coordinator is available for them. However, we don’t want to presume that we are going to be the best support person for them, whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty, or in the case of a hung jury. So, it’s being there but not presuming that we are going to be the right resource.

……………………………………………………………………………………………..

There was much more to talk about, but Attorney Saffo had a busy day ahead of her. The work she and so many others in law enforcement are doing to make the justice system more effective in rape cases was evident in our conversation.

This might be one reason why we are hearing powerful statements from victims who may feel the support of the system behind them. Recently, in a New Hampshire courtroom, a teen victim faced the man who admitted to kidnapping and sexually assaulting her over a period of nine months before she managed to escape. Her courageous statement included these words:

“I want you to know that I did not do this to you,” she said. “I didn’t put you in prison. You put yourself in prison.”


amy vAmy Vorenberg is a Research and Evaluation Consultant at Prevention Innovations Research Center, and the Director of the Legal Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire Law School. She began her legal career in New York as a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney. Later she worked as an Assistant Attorney General in New Hampshire. She moved to the NH Public Defender’s office in 1993 during which time she started the criminal clinic at the University of New Hampshire School of Law (then Franklin Pierce). She served for ten years on the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board. Amy started teaching Legal Analysis and Writing in 1998. She has also taught Criminal Law. Amy’s research and scholarship focus is legal writing, juvenile and criminal law. She is currently working on a three-volume legal writing practice-based textbook, “Preparing for Practice: Legal Analysis and Writing in Law School’s First Year” (working title). She has written editorials and spoken out on campus sexual assault.

Lara SaffoLara J. Saffo, JD is the County Attorney in Grafton County, New Hampshire.  She has prosecuted hundreds of cases involving all types of crimes, and has specialized in sexual assault and domestic violence cases, as well as alternative sentencing solutions, such as drug court, mental health court, veteran’s courts and juvenile diversion/restorative justice. She graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville Tennessee in 1992.  She began her career as a prosecutor in 1993, as an Assistant County Attorney and district court prosecutor.  Attorney Saffo then became an associate, civil attorney at Van Dorn & Curtis, PLLC in Orford New Hampshire.  She returned to prosecution in 2004.  From that time, until she became county attorney in 2009, she was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prosecutor at the Office of the Grafton County Attorney. She currently serves as an advisory board member for the Grafton and Sullivan County Child Advocacy Center at DHMC, involved in initiates to expand Sexual Assault Resource Teams in Grafton County, the prosecution representative on the state-wide committee for Justice Involved Veterans, a member of the protocol review committees for the Adult Sexual Assault Protocols and Human Trafficking Protocols, a member of the NH Attorney General’s Commission to Combat Human Trafficking and an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University and White Mountain Community College.

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Public Policy:  Prevention or Harm?

By Grace Mattern

PIRC Research to Practice Specialist

Author and Nonprofit Advisor

www.gracemattern.com

[Left Photo Source & Right Photo Source]

In the late 1990’s the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) worked with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (NHCADSV) to amend New Hampshire’s child abuse statute to provide what everyone hoped would be increased safety for abused children and women.  Wouldn’t tougher penalties for abusers who violated stay-away orders make battered women and their children safer?

At the time I was working with Susan Schechter, a pioneer of the battered women’s movement, on another initiative—a national project to address the intersection of intimate partner violence and child abuse.  I asked her what she thought about the proposed policy change in New Hampshire.

“We should be trying to enforce the laws we already have,” Susan said.  “We don’t need more laws, we need to change how communities keep women and children safe.”

The law was changed. It didn’t improve enforcement of orders and it led to disagreements between DCYF and NHCADSV about an advocate’s role in reporting violations of orders.  Putting a criminal penalty in a civil statute—designed to outline the state’s work with families to heal abuse and reunite children with their biological parents—didn’t work, and it didn’t make children and battered women any safer.

The development of sex offender registries is another public policy initiative that was meant to protect children, but has turned out to be harmful in too many instances.  Sex offender registries were established with the belief that parents and the public could keep children safe if they knew where all the sex offenders were.  The instinct was protective.

But in reality, the most likely offender of any child is a family member or friend: someone from the community you would expect you could trust. In a third of cases the offender is another child, according to the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth.  In many states a juvenile convicted of a sex crime, no matter how unjust or misguided the conviction, is subject to a lifetime on a public sex offender registry.

In The New Yorker, Sarah Stillman recounts troubling stories of the children, some as young as 10 at the time of their offense, who are on public registries. The negative consequences they face include vigilante violence against them and their families, misguided and ineffective treatment, and crippling discrimination in education and employment.  Criminalizing trauma-related behavior by a child, and publicly identifying that child as a sex offender, doesn’t prevent child abuse. It perpetrates it through policy.

To be clear, I’m not making an argument against sex offender registries.  I’m pointing out that when we advocate for policy changes we believe will help protect victims, we need to think as creatively as we can about the ways policy changes might be harmful to vulnerable people.  If we can identify potential unintended negative consequences then we can advocate for policies that minimize unintended harm as much as possible.

After trying for too long to find justice for victims in the criminal justice system, advocates in the battered women’s movement learned that justice can never be fully realized by any system of government. No matter how well-crafted the policy, government retains the authority to implement it however it wants, including in racist and sexist ways.  We criminalized domestic violence and advocated for the police to put batterers in jail, and the men who ended up incarcerated were disproportionally black or poor or both.

As a movement, we hope to learn from our mistakes.  The emphasis on criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence and sexual assault shifted years ago, with more attention on other systems—medical, mental health, community-based, child welfare, public assistance—as places to advocate for the support of survivors and their families.

There is growing recognition across child sexual assault victim rights groups and groups of family members affected by the registry of juveniles, such as Women Against Registry, that reform is needed.  Stacie Rumenap of Stop Child Predators, talking about lobbying for states to adopt registries, told Stillman, “Never in our wildest dreams were we going state by state asking lawmakers to punish juveniles.”

We need to have wild dreams when we advocate for new policies so we make as few mistakes as possible.

 

For more information on state registry laws and juveniles, please visit the Center for Sex Offender Management.


matternGrace S. Mattern was Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence for 30 years. She has been actively involved with public policy and systems advocacy to promote effective community interventions in response to domestic and sexual violence and coordinated a statewide network of programs that assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. She served on the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Chairing the Research Committee. She has also served on the Attorney General’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect, the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, the National Greenbook Policy Advisory Council, and on numerous Boards of Directors, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the NH Network of Child Advocacy Centers and the NH Coalition to End Homelessness. She is currently the Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the NH Center for Nonprofits and is a member of the Advisory Board of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

 

 

Addressing “Revenge Porn” Using a Community Approach

By LB Klein, MSW

[Left Photo Source & Right Photo Source]

“Revenge porn” is a colloquialism for the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit still or moving images with the intention of causing harm. It is a form of sexual violence commonly used as a tactic by a perpetrator of harassment, intimate partner violence, and stalking to harm the victim. The images may originally have been taken with or without consent, may originally have been consensually shared with a partner, or stolen via hacking of a personal computer or phone. The “revenge porn” is then posted publicly, often on websites, and sometimes with the victim’s contact information, social media sites, or address, so that the victim can be further harassed and humiliated.

There are two commonly proposed solutions for “revenge porn.” The first is the idea that people should just stop taking nude photos of themselves. This solution blames victims and shames people, usually women, for their sexuality and provides no solution for the problem of gender-based violence. The issue with “revenge porn” is the lack of consent in the distribution of the images, not in the existence of the images themselves. The violation is not the existence of bodies or people seeing them but in who decides who can share the images (victims have not participated in the decision or agreed to share images or personal information), the intention for sharing the images (i.e., retaliation or punishment) and the perpetrators’, usually men, effective tactic of leveraging patriarchy to shame their women partners as “revenge.”

The second proposed solution is turning to the criminal legal system. While less victim-blaming, this is often quite ineffective. “Revenge porn” is a psychologically and sexually abusive form of violence that relies on community shaming. While 27 states currently have laws against “revenge porn”  and seventeen more are drafting legislation, “revenge porn”— like many other forms of gender-based violence—is rarely addressed in a timely or fulfilling manner by the criminal legal system, and victims are often left to face increased stigma without recourse. There are people who will never feel safe turning to the police or the courts for help, even if those avenues are improved. Simply making “revenge porn” illegal is but one step toward true prevention and intervention.

Here are four areas outside of introducing new legislation or advocating for risk reduction that can be leveraged to address “revenge porn.”

  1. Increase the capacity of sexual and domestic violence service providers to raise awareness about “revenge porn”.

It is vital that advocates and counselors learn more about the nature and dynamics of “revenge porn” so that they can identify the behavior and possible remedies. As these providers are already working these issues, they can also raise awareness that “revenge porn” is a form of gender-based violence and that its victims deserve support.

  1. Increase public education and awareness without shaming victims.

Due to recent media attention, there is increased awareness that “revenge porn” is happening, but the sensationalism and emphasis on legal intervention does not inspire the public to take responsibility. Educational efforts should focus on what community members can do to aid in prevention by avoiding “revenge porn” websites, shaming websites that host nonconsensually-shared images, and providing support to friends who are targeted through “revenge porn.”

  1. Include discussion of “revenge porn” in bystander intervention programs.

Bystander intervention is a powerful prevention strategy that centers on seeing all members of the community as a part of the solution for ending violence. These programs should include examples of “revenge porn” alongside other forms of interpersonal violence. These programs can emphasize the need for perpetrator accountability and the power of prosocial bystanders to shift the culture that emboldens “revenge porn” perpetrators.

  1. Engage with leaders in the technology field to develop innovative solutions.

While “revenge porn” is simply a form of gender-based violence facilitated using new technology, social media and the idea are relevant points of consideration when uncovering solutions. Technological interventions might make it harder for abusers to disseminate “revenge porn” or might help survivors quickly get images taken down.

“Revenge porn” is a new manifestation of a pervasive endemic public health issue: gender-based violence. It relies on a patriarchal culture in which even well-meaning individuals abdicate responsibility. This leads to the perpetuation of the myth that criminal and civil legal systems work to provide justice and restoration to victims, or that further shaming and limiting the sexualities of women are effective prevention strategies. Because these are false promises, we must consider new solutions that are rooted in communities, address power and privilege, promote education, empower bystanders, and use innovative technological practices. Only through leveraging interdisciplinary expertise and listening to what survivors really want will we see a shift away from a culture that enables “revenge porn” and excuses those who host and post it.


LB_KleinLB Klein, MSW is a Consultant and Lead Trainer for Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. In that role, she builds the capacity of institutions of higher education and communities to implement the Bringing in the Bystander Program. She is based in Atlanta, GA and will begin pursuing a doctorate in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this Fall.