UT study helps police notify survivors of their rape kit results

Crime
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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thousands of rape kits went untested for years. Now, many are coming back with positive DNA results, and perpetrators are being identified.

But the next tough task police face is notifying survivors — and doing it without causing any more trauma.

The Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin has responded to this national need by developing the first-ever community guide: the “Notification for Victims of Assault (NoVA): A Guide for Communities with Untested Sexual Assault Kits.”

“Crime of sexual assault is like no other crime,” said Noel Busch-Armendariz, University Presidential Professor at Steve Hicks School of Social Work.

She said there’s no one-size-fits-all policy, but the guideline can help agencies develop a protocol that works for them.

The report emphasizes that protocol should be victim-focused and “trauma-informed.”

“Not just a protocol that is a policy that sits in a handbook, but it’s about the interaction between the law enforcement investigator and that survivor,” Busch-Armendariz said.

The steps law enforcement should follow include:

  1. Assessing Community Context and Catalyst for Change
    1. This includes understanding what led to having a backlog
  2. Assessing Personal Readiness
    1. “From the chief to every patrol officer,” the report said the entire agency should be ready to learn and embrace improvements
  3. Supporting Agency and Working Group Readiness
    1. Identify other groups who can help with this process
  4. Making the Change
  5. Evaluating your Protocol

The study said making the change involves a wide range of factors. Among them, understanding that survivors can react differently. They can be disengaging, or they can be laughing or joking.

The report also outlines what worked for one agency. They kept the first contact over the phone brief, but supportive, but met in person next to explain the next steps.

“Not just a DNA sample. We’re actually human beings.”

Ashley Spence, who lives in Austin, had to wait seven years before finding out that a man who attacked her in 2003 had been identified and arrested.

“Gosh, I still vividly remember the moment. It completely shocked me.” She said she felt relief, but also at the same time, “There was honestly a little bit of anger like why now, why seven years later? I’ve tried so hard to overcome this, why now?”

She explained it’s important for law enforcement to know that getting a call like that 5, 10 or 20 years after the attack can be triggering.

“You can get better. You can get strong. You can overcome, but there are invisible wounds that can always be there,” Spence explained.

Coni Stogner, Vice President of Prevention and Community Services at the SAFE Alliance, said, “Many survivors will maybe not have thought about the abuse in many years, and different survivors may be in different place in their healing process.”

Stogner said what’s outlined in the guideline is important because “When someone is the victim of violent crime, particularly sexual assault, their power has been taken away, and so we would not want a process by which a survivor is informed and not given a choice in the matter or an opportunity to be really involved in that process in terms of their preferences, how things might unfold.”

Spence added, “We need to give realistic expectations with hope. A level of honesty with where it’s going, what the timeline is, when people can expect responses…so the survivors have something to go off of and not wondering if today’s the day that they’ll find out more.”

Busch-Armendariz said the goal of developing guidelines for law enforcement is to have survivors say coming forward made a difference in their lives.

“When you think of survivors, we’re not just a DNA sample. We’re actually human beings,” Spence said.

SAFEline is a 24-hour confidential hotline for people seeking help with sexual or domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, or parenting support and is available by phone at (512) 267-SAFE (7233), by text at (737) 888-7233 or by chat at safeaustin.org/chat.

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