Forensics Offer Rape Victims a Roadmap to Justice



Forensics Offer Rape Victims a Roadmap to Justice

The topic of rape is finally making headlines. Recently, Time magazine made rape its cover story, focusing on sexual assaults on college campuses. Afterward, numerous broadcast outlets followed suit. According to the latest statistics:

  • College freshman and sophomore women are at greater risk to be raped than upperclassmen. About 84 percent of women who reported sexual coercion experienced the incident during their first four semesters on campus.
  • Students living in sorority houses and on-campus dormitories are respectively three times and 1.4 times more likely to be raped than students living off campus.
  • At least 50 percent of college sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use.
  • Thirty percent of college women who said they had been raped contemplated suicide after the incident.

“Rape is a four-letter word that no one wants to talk about,” said COVERSA Program Director Carolyn Cordle, RN, BSN, SANE-A. “With that being said, it’s hard for funders and donors to give.”

COVERSA, which stands for Collection of Victim Evidence Regarding Sexual Assault, is looking to change that. The 501(c)(3), Kansas City-based nonprofit works to improve forensic evidence collection used in a court of law, provide acute intervention services and collaborate with sexual assault advocates.

“We have been providing services to victims of sexual assault for the past 13 years now,” said COVERSA Founder Rebecca Hierholzer, MD, MBA, FACEP. “In the last three years, we’ve been able to expand our services to 14 different hospitals in the Kansas City area. That allows us to treat people from up to 26 different counties. We’re very proud of that fact.”

COVERSA also provides training for nurses to become sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) and conducts community outreach and education.

Before COVERSA, a victim’s only option to receive treatment and guidance was to go to an emergency room. In some instances, this meant congested waiting rooms and medical staff who did not have the training needed to deal with the emotional intricacies of a sexual assault victim. Consequently, many opted out of the exam and the perpetrator never saw a day in court.

SANEs are available around the clock to provide medical forensic exams to rape victims. They document and treat injuries and refer patients to the emergency department if an injury is beyond their realm of practice. Additionally, they provide treatment for sexually transmitted infections and protection against unwanted pregnancies. Victims are also connected with area advocacy groups to help see them through the recovery process.

The role of a SANE is to remain objective throughout the process, collect forensic evidence and protect the chain of custody. “In order to do this type of exam, they have to remain objective,” Hierholzer said. “To be an expert witness, you can’t show support for the victim, instead you have to be supportive of the science of forensics.” But the process isn’t simple. Victims have to help provide a complete medical history and complete details of the assault. “That can be very uncomfortable asking a person where they’ve been touched, what went where...and it can be very uncomfortable for the victim to answer those questions. But my nurses need to know those questions because they need to go to those areas to try and recover evidence. This process can be very long. Victims vary from very emotional to very stoic. There’s not a standard emotional response for this kind of assault.”

Because forensics is imperative to trying rape cases, Hierholzer said after an assault, the victim should not wash, bathe, drink, smoke or do anything that could hinder evidence collection. She also urges more community education about rape and sexual assault. She and Cordle believe more education will produce more informed jurors.

Cordle said that jurors need to understand that victims know their perpetrators. Hierholzer agrees. “It’s not the person who jumps out from behind the bushes and grabs you as you walk down the street,” she said. “More than likely, it’s somebody you know. Somebody who is your neighbor, somebody who lives in your apartment complex, somebody who works in your office...And that’s the reality of it.”

Because the perpetrator may not be a stranger, Hierholzer said it makes it harder to prosecute rape cases. She said that in the eyes of the juror, it becomes a “he said, she said” situation—not an actual assault. Cordle added that alcohol fosters other misconceptions. “Just because a person drinks, that dosen’t give anyone a right to take advantage of that person. People just don’t play hard to get,” she said. According to U.S. Department of Justice, only two percent of sexual assault accusations reported to the police turn out to be false.

Cordle also said that rape is not just a female problem. “We have seen a dramatic increase in male assaults in the last few years,” she said. “If someone says no, it simply means no.”
As for what and who to watch out for, Hierholzer said rapists are usually serial predators who don’t commit just one sexual assault and quit. “They develop their own little style of how they approach a person, and they tend to prey on people who don’t have much self-esteem,” she said.

Other targets are younger children, older adults and people who live in skilled nursing centers, or individuals who are mentally impaired. “Because the people know them, they are more likely not to have injuries,” Hierholzer said. “And unfortunately, when you go to a jury, they think that the victim should have injuries when 95 percent of the time they don’t have obvious ones – another factor that makes prosecuting these cases difficult.”

Hierholzer added that multiple studies conclude perpetrators commit up to 400 cases of rape before they are ever sent to prison. “That’s the thing we need to change,” she said. “We need to let our victims know that we understand this, and that we’ll be there for them.
Getting rape victims to come forth is another challenge. Hierholzer said some are afraid of the negative media attention and some don’t feel they can withstand a jury trial. “Not everyone who is sexually assaulted necessarily wants to go to trial,” she said. “And that’s something that needs to come out through subsequent counseling with the different agencies that our patients are referred to.”

However, some victims are willing to go to trial – like the case that happened in the Kansas City area...

Two married couples with children, who played together, lived in the same neighborhood. One of the couples hosted a Halloween party for the adults. One of the married women had consumed a little bit of alcohol but seemed tipsier than normal. She went to the bathroom only to find her neighbor’s husband shadowing close behind. The woman said she felt uncomfortable about the situation and found herself moving in and out consciousness throughout the ordeal.

After the perpetrator left the bathroom, the woman went to look for her husband, who she found downstairs sick and not feeling well. The next morning, she felt even more uncomfortable about what happened and went to a hospital where she was examined by a forensic nurse. Evidence was collected, including the dress she wore at the party.
She went to talk with a detective about the incident and he assumed she was simply trying to cover up an affair. She then spoke with a legislator she knew who helped her get in contact with the area’s main prosecutor, who took the case. Only one juror understood how something like this could happen – that even though she and her husband were friends with this couple, that something like this is still possible.

Ultimately, that juror was able to convince the other jurors to find the perpetrator guilty. He received a mild sentence and moved his family to Texas where he later molested a child.
“’Friends’ can certainly perpetrate a crime,” Hierholzer said. “That’s what we really need to get our jurors to understand. There are [these] types of perpetrators out there. Like I said, it’s not the people who jump out from behind the bush and grab you...They are the people you know and that’s, once again, what makes prosecuting these crimes very difficult.”

Cordle said that rape is the only crime in which the victim has to prove their innocence, while the perpetrator can plead that everything was consensual. “Victims have to be diligent throughout this whole process,” she said. “I’m disappointed that not everyone starts by believing the victim.”

As for COVERSA’s sexual assault outreach sites, Cordle said they continue to help hospitals improve services in their communities. “We have learned that if you build it they will come,” she said. “With every hospital expansion, we have exceeded the expected numbers by large margins. We have learned that bringing our services to victims allow them to be served better.” Cordle also said that there is a large number of people in law enforcement who really care.

“Sexual assault is not a great table conversation,” Hierholzer said, who recently received the Rising Star of Philanthropy Award by Nonprofit Connect. “It’s not a feel-good feeling, but I think that as a human being, you have to be aware that sexual assault can happen to you and if it does, you need to know where to go to be taken care of very well.”

COVERSA operates on a shoestring annual budget of $250,000 and has served almost 2000 victims – both men and women – since its inception.

To learn more about COVERSA, visit COVERSA.org, or follow COVERSA on Facebook and Twitter.

To report a rape, call COVERSA’s 24/7 Access CareLine at 1.855.717.1136.

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Tonia Wright

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