Insights

Sexual Assault: A National Public Safety Crisis

A multiethnic group of people in business attire gather around a conference table for a serious discussion.

Handling of sexual assault cases would improve with leadership from multidisciplinary advisory committees that bring together professionals from medicine, victim advocacy, law enforcement, crime labs, prosecutors' offices, and government.

Why Multidisciplinary Teams are Key to Improving Our Response to Sexual Assault

We have all seen the headlines: hundreds of rape kits sitting untouched, victims of sexual assault left without justice or the support they need to heal and progress from victim to survivor. As a nation, our criminal justice system has failed victims of sexual violence.

This failure is rooted in limitations—limitations in resources, limitations in defining sexual violence and recognizing sexual assault as a violent crime, limitations in understanding the impact of trauma on victims of sexual violence, limitations in recognizing the value of testing forensic evidence associated with sexual assaults and limitations in understanding the prevalence of sexual assault. Failure to effectively address sexual assault as a violent crime and hold sexual assault offenders accountable has devasting effects on victims of sexual assault and on our communities, including cycles of revictimization and violence, breach of trust with law enforcement and reduced public safety.

Each unsubmitted, and therefore untested, sexual assault kit represents a neglected victim of sexual violence. Within the last decade, the public began to realize the magnitude of unsubmitted sexual assault kits and the prevalence of sexual violence. We, as a nation, also recognized the imparities in our criminal justice system and start a process to improve our response to sexual assault. Important steps include

  • Providing federal and state government funding to educate criminal justice practitioners on the effects of trauma on victims of sexual assault,
  • supporting the healing process for victims of sexual assault and creating a better approach to engaging victims in the criminal justice system,
  • enacting policy and legislation to better track and test sexual assault kits, and
  • aligning practices with national recommendations to improve investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases.

The Solution: Multidisciplinary Collaboration and Cultural Change

One thing is certain: to enact an improved response to sexual assault, criminal justice practitioners cannot function in silos. Forming a multidisciplinary advisory committee (MDAC) allows them to collaborate to address systemic issues and derive solutions which can be fiscally supported and sustained through implementation of policy. This team should include representation from all of the disciplines involved in a sexual assault case, including:

  • sexual assault medical personnel or sexual assault nurse examiners,
  • community and system based victim advocates,
  • law enforcement and sexual assault investigators,
  • crime laboratory personnel and sexual assault prosecutors, and
  • key stakeholders with decision-making and resource allocation authority, such as local or state government officials.

MDACs differ from other sexual assault multidisciplinary teams because they have representatives with the authority to enact and oversee policy which will directly impact the practitioners engaged in sexual assault response reform and allocate resources to support such policies.

The MDAC is an integral part of sexual assault response reform. It is the driving force behind providing training, resources, conducting policy review, evaluating practices and fostering a culture which holds offenders accountable by seeking just resolution to sexual assault cases whenever possible while supporting victims. Some key policies and practices that MDACs can enact include:

  • conducting an inventory of unsubmitted sexual assault kits,
  • establishing a tracking system which captures all aspects of sexual assault kit processing from receipt to case adjudication,
  • establishing innovative practices for sexual assault case investigation and prosecution, and
  • building collaborative approaches for supporting victims of sexual assault and maintaining their engagement through the criminal justice process by partnering with victim advocacy and fosters trust within the community through transparent communication.

To assist agencies with an improved response to sexual assault through the MDAC model, I recently published Enacting an Improved Response to Sexual Assault: A Criminal Justice Practitioner’s Guide. This guide draws on my decades of research on law enforcement practices related to sexual assault. I designed the guide to assist with creating a process with milestones, goals, and suggested actions, supporting a successful and sustainable approach for addressing sexual assault cases in a trauma-informed, victim-centered, offender-focused method. Using this guide, agencies can improve their criminal justice response to sexual assault and ultimately improve public safety and promote trust with the community they serve.

Conclusion: Evidence-Based Support for Sustainable Change

Establishing a multidisciplinary team to address sexual assault cases is recognized as a national best practice. The MDAC concept expands on this recommendation to involve all relevant stakeholders and define critical actions and goals to support effective investigation and prosecution of these cases. It also provides an approach to ensure the implementation of policy can be supported fiscally for sustainability and establishes holistic, trauma-informed practices to support victims of sexual assault. As a leader in sexual violence research, RTI International produces works that empower criminal justice practitioners with the evidence-based practices needed to improve their response to sexual violence, end the cycle of revictimization, bring justice for victims and make communities safer.


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