A goal of the action research projects in Detroit and Houston was to develop victim notification protocols that were victim-centered and trauma-informed.
Both Detroit and Houston saw the need to train their criminal justice professionals on the victims' neurobiological response to sexual assault. For example, victims of trauma may behave in ways that are confusing to themselves and others, or may find that their recollection of events comes slowly and in fragments. Research has shown that the quality of statements can be enhanced by allowing victims to tell their stories at their own pace, understanding that their account may not come out in chronological order, and that details may be fuzzy.
The teams in both Detroit and Houston developed and implemented victim notification protocols for cases where a SAK was previously untested. In Detroit, the team established in-person notification and offered an apology when testing of a SAK yielded a CODIS hit. The in-person notification was done by representatives from the prosecutor's office, not the police department. Victims were also offered options for confidential communication (including whether or when to follow up with investigators or a community advocate) and were connected with community services.
One of the victim notification protocols in Houston included creation of a hotline for victims of sexual assault to contact authorities to learn the status of their cases, including results of the DNA testing. The hotline was advertised through public service announcements online and in
pamphlets left at community centers.
The Houston Police Department also hired a specialist, called a “justice advocate,” to help sexual assault victims navigate the criminal justice system. To better understand the impact the justice advocate position had on sexual assault investigations, the Houston action research team held focus-group sessions with detectives. The response was so positive that when results were presented to leadership, the position was made permanent.
As the nation grapples with how to better respond to sexual assault, using victim-centered and trauma-informed policies and practices is critical. Such approaches can provide victims access to the justice system, enhance victim services and responses, and improve public safety.
What happens to the brain and body during a sexual assault?
Sexual trauma directly affects parts of the brain that control memory, cognition, and emotion processing. Because the brain detects a threat, it activates a flood of hormones. The brain is highly sensitive to these severe fluctuations, and the hormones can:
- Impair rational thought and memory consolidation.
- Reduce energy and may cause “tonic immobility,” or temporary muscular paralysis.
Victims may experience “flat affect,” show little emotion, or have emotional responses that seem unusual given the circumstances, such as laughing or smiling while being questioned, often leading investigators to not believe them. Their memories of the trauma may also be fragmented and disoriented, so recalling events can be a slow and difficult process, and their statement may come out as evasive or “sketchy.” In addition, because of the lack of knowledge about what tonic immobility is, victims may feel increased self-blame, and police investigators may misinterpret this as consent.
Having a basic understanding that there is a wide range of reactions to a traumatic event that may not seem “typical” — and that the body's attempt to defend itself from a threat can affect these reactions — is important for every criminal justice professional to understand. Teaching law enforcement officials that it may take more time and patience for a victim's memory to come together — and that a victim's reaction to fight, flee, or freeze is uncontrollable behavior — may help investigators and prosecutors down the road.