Director's Corner: Making Progress on Understanding and Investigating Sexual Assault

While NIJ is proud of the progress we have made, we know there is still a great deal more to be done to improve sexual assault investigations, provide trauma-informed support to victims, and strengthen the efficiency of sexual assault kit testing.

–Nancy Rodriguez

Sexual assault is a traumatic crime with a wide range of impacts on both the victim and public safety. Over the last several years, survivors, advocates, policymakers, prosecutors and law enforcement have focused on improving sexual assault investigations to better support and serve victims. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to talk about how NIJ’s efforts are contributing to sexual assault awareness and improvements in evidence collection and processing, including the value in testing previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits (SAKs), the importance of victim-centered approaches, and the necessity of properly trained medical personnel.

For decades, NIJ has been committed to collecting data, analyzing findings and sharing knowledge about violence against women. For instance, we have evaluated the impact of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) and invested in forensic science research to develop improved methods for testing evidence. We also partnered with jurisdictions throughout the country to identify the best practices for preventing and responding to sexual assault.

So what have we found?

  • SANEs, who are trained to treat sexual assault victims and conduct medical examinations for forensic evidence, are more likely to identify a victim’s injuries than professionals who are not trained in examining victims[1] and they are 80 percent more likely to collect evidence that leads to successful prosecution.[2]
  • Victims are sometimes deemed unreliable based on their “abnormal” or erratic behavior following a sexual assault. But neuroscience reveals that sexual trauma directly affects the parts of the brain that control memory, cognition and emotion processing.[3]
  • Multidisciplinary teams made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, medical professionals, victims’ advocates and researchers are finding success in identifying the factors that contribute to sexual assault cases not moving forward in their jurisdictions. They are also developing solutions to test unsubmitted SAKs and improve investigation practices.[4]
  • Forensic science research has validated a method to enhance DNA identification from sexual assault evidence. This method was shown to optimize the testing of sexual assault evidence and save time by automating the process.[5]

These are just a few of the findings that NIJ-supported researchers have uncovered over the years. They reflect several efforts from criminal justice agencies and researchers who have collaborated to find and apply knowledge to strengthen responses to sexual assault.

Last year, we published the interactive Sexual Assault Kits: Using Science to Find Solutions webpage, which gives a comprehensive account of findings from two of our major studies about unsubmitted SAKs – one in Detroit and the other in Houston. Both studies developed multidisciplinary teams, conducted a census of SAKs that had not been submitted to the lab, developed plans to test those kits, determined how best to notify victims, and implemented reforms to prevent the issue from recurring.

This year, we published a series of guides to help jurisdictions consider how to improve their response to sexual assault cases, both new investigations and older cases that are being re-opened. We are also moving forward on several projects that address sexual assault case attrition. For instance, NIJ is working with the Office on Violence Against Women on the Sexual Assault Justice Initiative, which will evaluate new performance measures for prosecutors' offices around the country over the next four years. This project will advance our understanding of prosecution efforts in sexual assault cases and redefine how we measure success when handling sexual assault cases.

We are also supporting local agencies through the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence – Inventory, Tracking and Reporting (SAFE-ITR) program solicitation (pdf, 33 pages), which provides funding to states, units of local government, and tribal governments to implement evidence management programs to inventory, track and report untested and unsubmitted SAKs. This program aligns well with our Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) working group, which has nearly completed its work identifying best practices to assist jurisdictions and organizations in the development of protocols to address the spectrum of issues that arise in the course of working with sexual assault evidence.

In addition, we are partnering with the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, to test SAKs submitted from law enforcement agencies across the country. This partnership is helping state and local agencies test previously unsubmitted SAKs, add DNA profiles to the national database, and find possible investigative leads; it is also a research opportunity to identify how crime laboratories can revise their processes and procedures to accommodate a large influx of SAKs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men report experiencing rape at some time in their lives,[6] and rape and other forms of sexual assault continue to be a notoriously underreported crime.[7] Victims deserve to receive the services and care they need and to have their cases investigated and adjudicated in ways that minimize further trauma and victimization.

Although NIJ is proud of the progress we have made, we know there is still a great deal more to be done to improve sexual assault investigations, provide trauma-informed support to victims, and strengthen the efficiency of SAK testing. NIJ will continue to look forward and collaborate with researchers and federal, state and local partners to find and share evidence-based practices that enhance public safety and give victims the justice they deserve.

Date Created: April 14, 2016

[note 1] Cross, Theodore P., Megan Alderden, Alexander Wagner, Lisa Sampson, Brittany Peters, Meredith Spencer, and Kaitlin Lounsbury, Forensic Evidence and Criminal Justice Outcomes in a Statewide Sample of Sexual Assault Cases (pdf, 220 pages), Final Report to the National Institute of Justice, September 2014, Award No. 2011-WG-BX-0005, NCJ 248254.

[note 2] Campbell, Rebecca, Stephanie Townsend, Deborah Bybee, Jessica L. Shaw, and Jenifer Markowitz, Implementation of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Practitioner Evaluation Toolkit (pdf, 145 pages), Final Report to the National Institute of Justice, January 2013, Award No. 2009-MU-MU-0002, NCJ 240916.

[note 3] Learn more from the NIJ.gov page Understanding the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault or watch an interview with Dr. Rebecca Campbell on the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault.

[note 4] Learn more from the NIJ.gov page Untested Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases.

[note 5]Carson, Christian, Alex Garvin, and Kim Gorman, Automated Processing of Sexual Assault Cases Using Selective Degradation (pdf, 75 page), Final Report to the National Institute of Justice, February 2013, Award No. 2009-DN-BX-K039, NCJ 241332.

[note 6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sexual Violence (pdf, 2 page), Data Sheet, 2012.

[note 7] Rennison, Callie Marie, Rape and Sexual Assault: Reporting to Police and Medical Attention, 1992-2000 (pdf, 4 pages), Selected Findings, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2002, NCJ 194530.