Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction last week showed that no one is above the law. But it was a rare victory for sexual assault survivors, as a report released last week by Ramsey County starkly illustrates. One celebrity conviction does not fix a system that too often mistreats survivors.
The Ramsey County report was the result of a two-year review of sexual assault cases in the county. The review found that sexual assault reports all too often do not result in charges. Among other things, the review found that of 646 cases reviewed, only about 30 percent were referred by investigators to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for charging decision. Only 11 percent of sexual assaults studied resulted in charges.
The findings are not unique to Ramsey County. Caroline Palmer of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault noted that the numbers indicate better victim outcomes that the national averages. Palmer commended the county for making the effort to lay bare problems with the system and hopes it encourages others in the state to do the same.
The review indicated multiple areas of concern in the system, including large caseloads, understaffing and insufficient case tracking. It also addressed insufficient sexual abuse training as a factor. Alarmingly, 26 percent of survivors stopped an investigation that was underway, the report found. And, of 15 law enforcement investigators surveyed, about half had only one training on sexual assault before starting investigations, and five had no training.
Sexual assault cases involve trauma and humiliation for survivors “that require expertise that is different from investigating other cases,” the report notes, adding that a “standard chronological ‘what happened next’ interview format is often not useful because traumatic memory may not be neatly chronological.” Trauma-informed interviewing models allow for gathering information in a way “that more readily captures the snapshot memories often formed through a traumatic event.” With practice, investigators and prosecutors using trauma-informed interviews can capture the incident more completely while treating survivors with more dignity and respect, instead of driving them away with disbelief, shaming, skepticism and condescension.
Without better-trained law enforcement investigators and prosecutors, it is difficult for sexual abuse survivors to trust a legal process that doesn’t believe them, sides with their abusers and re-victimizes them. “When the legal system fails survivors, ‘it discourages victims and survivors from coming forward in future cases because they don’t believe that justice will be done on their behalf,’” Christina Supinski, CEO of AEquitas, told Huffington Post in the wake of the Cosby conviction. “And then perpetrators go unchecked and assault more victims.”
AEquitas is an organization that teaches prosecutors a trauma-informed approach to working with sexual abuse victims by encouraging them to slow down, withhold judgment and form trusting relationships with victims.
For its part, Ramsey County has committed to adding two investigative sergeants to the St. Paul Police Department’s sexual violence investigations unit and two advocates to the team that serves survivors through the county’s Sexual Violence Services program. It plans to form an East Metro Sexual Assault Task Force. The report recommends that Ramsey County law enforcement implement formalized training on sexual violence, trauma and best practices.
We strongly encourage law enforcement in Ramsey County and elsewhere else to go beyond recommendations and implement thorough trauma-informed training so that charges and convictions become the norm, not the exception.
If you are a victim of sexual abuse, there are resources available to help you. In Minnesota, advocacy programs in your area are just a call away and are dedicated to helping survivors and those traumatized by unhealthy relationships seek safety and be safe. Check https://www.rapehelpmn.org/find-help/ for an advocacy program in your area. Further, nationally, you can seek help through the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (“RAINN”) https://www.rainn.org/get-help, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673.