Victims struggle to report sexual abuse
Penn workshop discusses how sexual assault cases often don’t get reported or result in convictions
November 18, 2011, 12:41 am·
A victim goes down a tricky path when trying to turn a sexual assault into a conviction.
This was the topic of conversation at Thursday’s Penn Violence Prevention workshop, “Investigating and Prosecuting Sensitive Crimes.”
Three experts spoke at the Penn Women’s Center before an intimate group of the Penn community, including students and staff members of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives and Student Health Services, among others.
Those experts included Deborah Harley, chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney Office’s Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit; Mike Boyle, the director of the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center and Pat Brennan, the director of Penn Public Safety’s Special Services.
When a victim dials 9-1-1 to report a sexual abuse, he or she may be taken to the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center, a new rape crisis center in Northeast Philadelphia, which has seen over 200 cases since May — 10 percent of which go on to prosecution. According to Harley, 95 percent of their rape victims don’t have injuries that require medical treatment, so treatment at the center — where there is no wait time — is preferable to a trip to a hospital emergency room. In the past, rape victims in Philadelphia were taken to Jefferson and Episcopal hospitals, where they had to wait as long as nine hours for the exam.
The next step is for the victim to go to the Special Victims Unit within the Police Department. After receiving an affidavit — a written request for an arrest or search warrant — the police launch an investigation, in which DNA evidence may be used to find the offender.
The police take the victim’s emotional and psychological state into consideration when deciding whether to take legal action against the perpetrator. “I don’t want the public justice system to retraumatize her or revictimize her,” Harley said.
Six to 18 months may pass before the judge agrees to hear the preliminary hearing, which can increase the likelihood that a victim may change his or her mind to continue with legal action.
Even after victims decide to press charges, “a good 30 percent of victims don’t come to the preliminary hearing and we have to withdraw the charges,” she added.
The police are “constantly fighting” to have these cases heard, “especially with our kid cases,” Harley said, explaining that judges often don’t want to hear these kinds of tragic cases.
These trials can become further complicated when the victim was assaulted while under the influence.
Brennan spoke about one graduate student who, after doing very well in a final exam, made it her goal of the night to “get plastered,” meet a random guy and “have sex all night long.”
She never did find a guy she wanted to have sex with, but after falling asleep in her bed, a man who was a guest in her apartment entered her room. She claimed that the man raped her.
Harley was able to win the case — at first. It was a hard case because of the victim’s original stated desire to have sex with a “stranger.” Later, in an appeal to a superior court, the judge overturned the previous conviction.
However, sexual assault cases very often don’t even make it to the initial stage of reporting. Sexual assault, according to Brennan, is the number one unreported crime in the country.
This is especially true of male victims of sexual assault. Brennan said she has seen less than five cases of male sexual assault in her 10 years on the job. “Males have a much harder time coming forward [than females] … but I know it happens on Penn’s campus,” she said.
“All the services we provide students, as well as those provided by our campus partners like Special Services, are available to male victims of sexual violence,” Penn Women’s Center Associate Director Jessica Mertz said. “These services include advocacy, support and options counseling.”
College senior Joseph Lawless — who is president of Anti-Sexual Assault at Penn — explained that ASAP, as well as the all-male group One in Four, partner with the Penn Women’s Center to give presentations and hold discussions about relationship issues and violence prevention on campus. He also noted that it is important to “trust all survivors and give them full access to our compassion … we welcome their stories and [will] provide them with support.”