Years ago when I was first promoted to Investigator, I quickly learned how uniquely challenging sexual assault investigations can be. Faced with victims who don’t come forward for quite some time, young children who can’t effectively communicate the wrong-doing they’ve experienced, and soliciting trust from a woman who has to divulge intimate details of their victimization can all be very trying. Fortunately, my jurisdiction has an organization referred to as the Advocacy Center, that specializes in providing victims services for those impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault.
When I was assigned my first sexual assault case, I was informed that someone had contacted the Advocacy Center on the victim’s behalf and that a member would be sitting in on my interview. I had of course conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews over the years, however, I had never had an outsider observe the interaction. When I asked a superior how to I should handle this, I was told that I should allow the advocate into the interview room, but under no circumstance was I to allow the advocate to talk, interject, or ask any questions of their own. I was also told that the advocates were “anti-police” and simply did not understand the elements needed to establish a crime and the evidence needed to affect an arrest.
During my questioning, I feared this may be true when the advocate said to the victim, “I bet when all this happened you didn’t expect a quiz to follow”. Shrugging this off, I continued on. In time, I learned to appreciate that advocates have a deep desire to help victims, just as I did. Although we had the same overall goal, where I was narrowly focused on trying to make a case, the advocate was more focused on providing emotional support. I know for a fact, that when law enforcement officers spend any amount of time in the profession they understandably become removed from the emotional aspect of the job. If they didn’t do so, the toll would be too great to bear. Even the little that does seep through our emotional walls leads to PTSD, a higher rate of divorce, alcoholism, and suicide.
I also learned that many advocates did in fact feel a certain amount of resentment towards law enforcement. This was also justified. They had experienced years of being considered unnecessary to the investigation, and when possible left out of it completely. Advocates were routinely not contacted by law enforcement, and some investigators actually became upset when they learned that one had become wise to the investigation. This was old thinking that has no place in sexual assault investigations today. I made it a plan to utilize the Advocacy Center for every such case, and made it a practice to contact them at the onset. Besides, a victim could always refuse advocacy support if they chose, however they rarely did.
Having an advocate present during your investigation has many benefits:
1. They serve as an excellent ice-breaker. Once you have established a working relationship with an advocate, it means a lot to victims to hear one say, “I’ve worked with Investigator so & so many times”. This ensures the victim that you know what you’re doing. It also helps them relax by knowing that you’ve heard many victimization accounts before, and therefore they don’t need to feel ashamed in telling theirs.
2. Advocates are able to handle the human element of the investigation. As an Investigator, you are most likely not able or willing, to comfort the victim yourself, provide a much needed shoulder to cry on, or follow up with the victim’s long-term healing. This frees you up to focus on evidence gathering and putting together a prosecutable case. We need to remember that the successful arrest and prosecution of the suspect will be overshadowed by the pain the victim will continue to experience for years to come.
3. When it comes to evidence gathering, I experienced many incidences in which a victim was adamant that they did not want to visit the hospital for a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) exam. It was during these times that the advocate was able to better explain that by not participating in this exam, they could seriously hamper the investigation. The advocate understood that even though the victim may not desire prosecution at the time, that upon later reflection they can often change their mind. Telling the victim that they should preserve evidence now, and that they could decide on prosecution later on, is often comforting and introduces logical thinking during a chaotic time.
4. By the time it comes to trial, there has now been a victim/advocate relationship established. Preparing to provide testimony is stressful enough on a seasoned professional, imagine the fear a sexual assault victim must experience as they prepare to tell their story to a pool of jurors, in the presence of the perpetrator, an adversarial defense attorney, and whoever else may show up to watch. The advocate is crucial in providing strength and guidance to the victim who is most likely participating in their first court experience. A timid witness, or worse yet one that backs out, is detrimental to the prosecution.
If you have such a group in your jurisdiction, reach out to them and develop (or repair) your relationship with them. Their benefit to the victim is also a benefit to your investigation. If such a group doesn’t exist, seek out ways to create one. After all, your investigative efforts are only a small part of the multi-disciplinary approach needed to restore victims of sexual assault.
Lastly, if you have been a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault in Tompkins County, NY, please visit the Advocacy Center website at www.theadvocacycenter.org or take advantage of their 24-hour hotline by calling (607) 277-5000. If you do not reside in Tompkins County, I would suggest you contact them anyhow, as I am confident they will assist you in finding a similar agency closer to where you reside. If you are a victim, you have worth, and you deserve a life absent of domestic violence, sexual assault, and victimization. If you are an Investigator, you can play a crucial role in solving such crimes and restoring the lives of its victims.