In the April 2019 online discussion “Changing the Response to Sexual Assault,” a program organized by the U.S. Department of State, the conversation covered a wide breadth of topics, namely what role law enforcement can play in identifying, supporting, and protecting survivors of sexual assault.
Why Consent Matters
Central to the discussion, too, was what qualifies as a crime in sexual assault cases.
The answer, from both Dallas County Chief of Police Lauretta Hill and Montgomery County Deputy Director Jordan Satinsky, the chat’s featured panelists, hinges on consent.
“If a victim does not consent to a sexual advance, it is considered a crime,” Hill explained.
“For children, defined in the United States as those under the age of 18, they cannot give consent in these cases,” Hill added, “so any sexual assault of a minor is tried as a crime.”
In addition, Hill and Satinsky underlined that in the United States a wife can report her husband in a sexual assault case if she did not consent to a sexual advance.
Equally important in these discussions is trusting survivors who come forward to report sexual assault cases.
“We have protections for suspects who are wrongfully accused,” Hill explained. “But in the majority of cases, victims who report a sexual assault are telling the truth.”
“This comes down to the nature of the crime,” Hill added. “It’s highly traumatic to report — and to revisit — a sexual assault case, and doing so requires a lot of the victim.”
Protecting the Vulnerable
Another concern for chat participants was how to protect survivors of sexual assault, especially those abused by family members.
“It’s important to emphasize that the crime was not the victim’s fault,” Hill said. “Make sure that victims know that they did not do anything wrong.”
Hill also recommends following up with survivors on a weekly basis to help them feel included in the investigation process and, more importantly, heard.
“In Maryland, we take great pains to keep sexual assault investigations from the media,” Satinsky explained, “especially as over 70 percent of these cases are domestic in nature and can lead to repercussions for victims.”
Law enforcement officers and other partners need to educate communities about these crimes and about protections for survivors, the panelists said.
“We need young women to know that it is OK to speak out against abusers,” Hill said. “This abuse can have a traumatizing, lifelong effect on these girls. It’s not OK to take away the innocence of our girls.”
Investigating Sexual Assault Cases
The investigation process in these cases, about which many participants in the chat asked, is especially thorough, as both Hill and Satinsky underlined, with specialists trained to use all the tools at their disposal to bring criminals to justice.
“Social media has been an incredibly helpful tool in investigating these cases,” said Satinsky.
“With these online platforms, we can track what people are saying, at times admitting to crimes; and we are able to locate victims and suspects using event and check-in features.”
Finally, both Hill and Satinsky emphasized the need for community involvement to support survivors, even long after a crime has taken place.
Satinsky noted the importance In Maryland of enlisting victims’ advocates, who sit down with individuals to hear their stories and connect them with the specialists and counselors they need, all the while checking up on survivors, to ensure that they are supported throughout the process.
“It’s important to get victims’ advocates and partner organizations in the same room so as not to delay cases and to get individuals the help they need early,” Satinsky explained.
“This is a crime committed to harm our girls, to harm our children,” Hill added.
By identifying these cases, supporting survivors, and protecting them and others from similar crimes, individuals can make their communities safer, now and for years to come, the panelists agreed.
Learn more about protecting the rights of women and girls on our #Africa4Her page.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to those interviewed and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.