Transcript: Notifying Sexual Assault Victims When Evidence Is Tested

April 2014 interview with Dr. Noël Busch-Armendariz, Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin.

Our mission really was to understand why we had so many untested or unrequested sexual assault kits and understand the barriers or the factors that led to why those kits were unrequested by law enforcement for testing.

Part of the project aim was to understand the scope of the problem and to find out how many unrequested kits there were, and one of the ways that we did that was to inventory those kits. But another way, part of what we did, from—the project was based in Houston, but one of the things that we’re good at at the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is really understanding the victim’s perspective. So putting the victim’s voice at the center of what we did from this action research. So we started with focus groups with victims and with professionals that serve victims to understand what happened in these cold cases after they reported, after they gave their forensic evidence, and then how did they want their notification to be handled in these cold cases? Once those cases were tested forensically, how should they be notified? What control did they want to have? How could they inform that process?

Part of the action research is to take evidence, to collect it, and to loop it back into practices so that it can make a difference in how we use the criminal justice system.

We are looking at the City of Houston and the Houston Police Department, but our project was really to bring together the stakeholders from point of outcry of the victim to restoration, which involves a lot of professionals that the victim may interact with in between point of outcry, maybe the same nurse at the very beginning, and then everybody that would interact with that sexual assault kit in between: the crime lab, the law enforcement patrol officer, the investigator, the prosecutor, the victim advocate in the community, and the people that would interface with that victim in between, so that whole continuum of how to handle that crime from the criminal justice perspective in the City of Houston.

It was important in Houston and because this issue was broadly important across the nation that we understand that sexual assault and rape are crimes that involve trauma. And if you’re going to test unrequested sexual assault kits and re-engage victims in the criminal justice process, that you re-engage them in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize them by giving them information about the results of that kit. So that protocol should be thoughtful. It should be informed by victims themselves about how it should happen for them with the best practices that we know available.

So what victims have told us in Houston about notification is they would most want to be in control of when the notification happens. So in Houston what we did was set up a hotline. That gives them control about when they re-engage with the system. So the hotline we have published in numbers of median, so that we say, you know, “The Houston Police Department and our crime lab is starting to test these kits. If you have an old sexual assault kit and want that evidence, you can now call this number, and we have a justice advocate who’s answering that hotline.” And that way the victim is in control of when they get that information.

There are some truths about that crime with regard to how they happen between the offender and the victim, the variables, the circumstances, and no matter where it happens or what jurisdiction it happens in, that we have lessons to learn from each other, so regardless of the city that it happens in. And that I hope that we can all borrow from the best practices. But having said that, there are also things that make context very, very important.
Some contextual factors that might be considered might be city, might be size of city, resources that a city might have, but it also might be the population. So you might have contextual factors that—city versus college or university.  You might have contextual factors that look like age as a difference. You might have contextual factors that have substances that are more often used, like alcohol or other drugs. So there are a lot of other contextual factors that I think are important. You might have people who are assaulted that are more nomadic or there are vacation spots where people go and are assaulted and so then you’re dealing with people who are moving and those are contextual factors.

Sexual assault kits are really important in the overall understanding of sexual assault crimes, and they are one piece of solving sexual assault crimes. They have propelled the crime of sexual assault to the public’s agenda and to our discourse and dialogue. So I’m grateful for that. And what I know is that we cannot hinge everything that we do about sexual assault crimes on that forensic data because most sexual assault crimes don’t have forensic data. The fact is most sexual assault crimes are not reported to law enforcement. When they are, a smaller percentage have sexual assault forensic information available and so what I would like us—at the same time where we are talking about how to smartly test sexual assault kits and what that can do for us from the criminal justice perspective, we will have a dialogue about how we will smartly investigate sexual assault crimes in a way that engages investigation and prosecution that doesn’t hinge on just forensic evidence.  Because that will actually not get us to a different place of prosecution, smart prosecution of sexual assault crimes, so I’d love us to have the dialogue nationally about smart investigation and smart prosecution of sexual assault crimes that ads forensic evidence as one piece but doesn’t hinge or rest our case on that piece of evidence.

And the crime is really this thorny, difficult crime, and so if we can bring ourselves to a bit of opening up about telling ourselves the truth about the difficulty around this crime, the truth around this crime, if we look at the prevalence about this crime, the relationship about the offender and the victim, if we look at the variables at play in this crime. And by that I mean how alcohol plays a part, how other drugs play a part, the relationship of where it happens most often, about the offender’s pre-assault behavior. When we start to add that complexity, and when we hold that complexity, then I think we’ll solve sexual assault as a crime. Forensic evidence is one piece of that complexity, and it really gives us that tangible scientific information, and so I don’t want to lose that, but I don’t want to not hold the rest of this complexity. And once we’re able to sort of hold all that complexity, we’ll make great strides in solving this crime. And what I’m most grateful for is I think we’re ready to have that dialogue as a nation.