Building Young Researchers in the Trenches

Sidebar to the article How NIJ Is Building the Nation's Research Infrastructure by Andrew Marcoux

Three doctoral students who have worked with the lead researchers in the sexual assault action-research project offer their unique perspectives on this experience.

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Deidi Olaya-Rodriguez

I became a social worker to change the lives of others, but what I did not know at the time was that along the way, the very people I sought to help would change my life forever. In 2005, I accepted a position at Casa de la Mujer, one of the most influential women's rights organizations in my native Colombia. My initial responsibilities included training health care providers to detect, report and respond to cases of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. But as my experience grew, I took on new responsibilities, including conducting workshops for women survivors of sexual and other types of violence.

The workshops centered on empowerment, psychosocial support, legal consultation and political advocacy. At Casa de la Mujer, we worked almost exclusively in multidisciplinary teams that included social workers, lawyers, social scientists and sociologists. Drawing on each of our respective fields allowed us to develop trust and implement an integrated approach that had astonishing results. The workshops inspired women to tell their stories, gain autonomy and confidence, and influence change in their communities; some even ran for public office. Profoundly moved by the firsthand accounts of violence and its aftermath, I decided to start a new journey, one that would take me to the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.

I began pursuing a master's degree in social work at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. I was immediately drawn to the work of Noël Busch-Armendariz at the university's Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA). IDVSA is similar to Casa de la Mujer in many ways, including its feminist approach, work on sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and partnerships in the community. When Busch-Armendariz and her colleague Caitlin Sulley approached me in early January 2014 about working on the NIJ action-research project, I was immediately interested. The issue of untested sexual assault kits (SAKs) and backlogs struck me as crucial for achieving justice for thousands of sexual violence survivors across the United States.

For the project, I have analyzed data from case studies to improve systems of communication and operation related to SAK evidence collection. I have also had the opportunity to attend meetings with our collaborative partners, listen to a survivor and read transcripts of several interviews on victim notification in cold cases. Witnessing the emotional impact on these U.S. survivors reminded me of hundreds of similar cases I heard during my time at Casa de la Mujer; there, survivors of sexual violence often experienced discouraging and revictimizing responses from the judicial system. But during this project, I have heard positive responses from survivors in Houston, who are reporting much better treatment from law enforcement. This renews my hope for justice and institutional change.

Although I have only been working on the project for the last few months, I have already learned a great deal. One of my key takeaways is that action research requires more than just a multidisciplinary approach. It requires something I have often heard about in Houston Police Department meetings: "having the right people in the right place." I have been amazed by the level of synergy between the different stakeholders in our Houston project, and I believe that their willing collaboration has played a key role in the progress made to date.

I have also learned about the importance of trust between all stakeholders. Producing change requires a dialogue between theory, process and practice. Without trust, it is hard to have open and honest conversations about the issues.

This project has also expanded my knowledge of the process of action research. It is not just about working together to understand what would work and why; it is about taking findings to the action level and implementing them in real-world settings. My experience on this project has allowed me to expand upon my time at Casa de la Mujer, and I know it will help me as I pursue doctoral studies on preventing interpersonal violence.

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Tasha A. Menaker

I am pleased (and relieved) to be a recent graduate of the doctoral program in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). With a master's degree in clinical psychology from SHSU and bachelor's degrees in criminal justice and psychology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I strive to integrate psychology and criminology into research and practice. My research focuses on trauma and violence against women, including sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking and prostitution. I am passionate about creating awareness of gendered violence, enhancing policy and service provisions for survivors, and ultimately eliminating violence against women. Perhaps the latter goal is lofty, but it is certainly worth the fight.

I am fortunate that my undergraduate and graduate studies have provided me with abundant opportunities to achieve these goals. In particular, I worked as a research assistant on the NIJ-funded action-research project during my first two years as a Ph.D. student. The project — carried out in collaboration with the Houston Police Department (HPD), community victim advocates, the District Attorney's Office, sexual assault nurse examiners and other stakeholders in Houston — looked at sexual assault kits (SAKs) that were never submitted to a crime laboratory for analysis. It also examined the local response to sexual assaults and the implementation of reforms.

William Wells, who served as the lead researcher on the project, selected me for involvement based on my prior research on sexual assault and my experience collecting data through interviews. My primary role was to conduct interviews with investigators in HPD's Sex Crimes Unit and collect data about sexual assault case processing, investigators' use of SAK evidence, and collaborations with victim advocates and prosecutors. I also authored papers summarizing project findings and delivered presentations to HPD personnel and criminal justice researchers.

This experience was particularly meaningful for several reasons. I valued the opportunity to conduct research with direct implications for victims. In addition, the project enhanced my skills as a researcher and taught me about the complexities and advantages of collaborative research with practitioners. I gained practical knowledge about interview strategies, creating field notes, and developing technical reports and presentations tailored to a practitioner audience. My experiences on this project also strengthened my ability to apply research to real-world problems.

Most important, I learned about collaborating with practitioners toward a common goal. It is essential to find a balance between being knowledgeable and being humble — researchers have much to learn from practitioners, and vice versa, and our willingness to learn must be evident. Accordingly, soliciting stakeholder input on study protocols is critical, because stakeholders' knowledge and experience can enhance the quality of data collection, as it did with our interview protocol.

I also developed an understanding of the daily challenges that confront practitioners, such as political climates, financial constraints and media scrutiny, which researchers must consider when working with these agencies. Finally, I learned the importance of establishing strong communication channels and trust between researchers and practitioners. Stakeholders should be regularly updated on research progress and findings. Applied research often seeks to understand problems that may reveal inadequacies in agency functioning, so researchers and practitioners must have honest discussions about how to present and discuss findings.

Collecting original data as part of an applied project is demanding, but the payoff is worthwhile. I spoke with many investigators and supervisors who made me feel hopeful about research's capacity to create positive change among practitioners who are open to suggestions and motivated to improve their agencies. I gained skills and knowledge from practitioners that I could not have obtained through other forms of data collection and reading. Moreover, I found that the connections I made with practitioners opened other opportunities, such as having sex crimes investigators speak in my gender and crime course, a truly beneficial experience for me and my students. This project demonstrated to me that working with practitioners has practical challenges, but it can result in positive outcomes for researchers, agencies and members of the public.

Learn more about NIJ's work to encourage researcher-practitioner partnerships.

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Bradley A. Campbell

While pursing bachelor's degrees in criminal justice and political science from Saint Joseph's College of Maine, I worked as a summer law enforcement officer for three years. Through this (albeit limited) experience with law enforcement, I faced the challenge of balancing my duties and responding to crime victims. This experience solidified my interest in attending graduate school with the goal of studying policing and finding ways to help law enforcement officers improve their response to victims. As such, my research interests lie primarily in policing with a focus on police investigations.

I went on to earn a master's degree in criminal justice and criminology from Sam Houston State University (SHSU) and am currently a doctoral candidate in SHSU's criminal justice and criminology program. During the summer of 2011, as I transitioned into the doctoral program, William Wells offered me the opportunity to participate in the NIJ-funded action-research project with the Houston Police Department (HPD). The project examines the problem of unsubmitted sexual assault kits (SAKs) and seeks to identify ways of improving responses to sexual assault. Initially, I helped develop an interview protocol for police investigators and scheduled and conducted interviews with members of HPD's Sex Crimes Unit. I later analyzed the interview data for reports and presentations to HPD personnel.

I have learned several valuable lessons working on the action-research project that cannot be garnered in a typical doctoral classroom setting. First, I gained practical research experience. Specifically, I learned to effectively collect interview data and compile field notes that capture information relevant to the research questions. I also learned the intricacies of sexual assault investigations as well as the factors that investigators must consider when balancing their roles as investigators and as compassionate responders to victims. The in-depth interviews helped me understand the nuances of decision-making during an investigation in a way that analyzing only quantitative data would not have done.

Second, I learned that practitioners and researchers can form effective partnerships that have the ability to change practices. The project taught me that researchers can provide practitioners with tools to make their jobs easier. For example, I compiled a report that summarized information about other agencies' policies and practices for investigating cold cases. The report helped inform discussions within HPD about how to involve victim advocates during sexual assault investigations, and in April 2012, HPD created a victim advocate position in its Adult Sex Crimes Unit. It is exciting to see how small pieces of an action-research project can influence an agency's practices.

Finally, I learned the balance between being a researcher and respecting the reality of practitioners' work. As a researcher, it is easy to overlook practitioner concerns about outside influences, such as the media and local politics. We must be aware of these influences when presenting sensitive research findings.

I have come to view researcher-practitioner collaborations as a mutual learning process. Through my work with practitioners, I have gained insights into the realities of sexual assault investigations that I could not have learned in academic articles or classroom settings. This enables me to better frame research questions and, ultimately, allows my research to be more meaningful because it will be framed in a nuanced way. I was inspired by how receptive HPD's Sex Crimes Unit was to the research findings and by the unit's willingness to incorporate project recommendations. Because of this, I look forward to a career centered on research derived from researcher-practitioner partnerships.

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