Sexual Assault Training & Investigations

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SATI e-News: January 29, 2007


Best Practice or Buzzword?
Sorting out Fact from Fiction in the Community Response to
Violence Against Women

By Joanne Archambault, SATI Training Director and Founder of EVAW International and Dr. Kim Lonsway, EVAW International Director of Research

So often we hear new buzzwords in our field, and we have to wonder whether they truly represent best practice – or if they are more myth than reality when it comes to improving the community response to the crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. In this Promising Practices article, we will explore some of these questions through different lenses. Specifically, we will address the issues of: (1) evidence-based prosecution; (2) blind and third party reporting; and (3) vertical advocacy.
Evidence-Based Prosecution (Without Victim Participation)
Recently, we have had a number of interesting conversations with advocates, law enforcement professionals, and prosecutors about the question of whether or not “evidence-based prosecution” should be used in cases of sexual assault. (Among criminal justice professionals, we often hear this concept referred to as “hostile prosecution.”) In the past, we have typically only seen this type of prosecution strategy used in domestic violence cases where the victim has recanted. In these situations, the prosecution sometimes moves forward with a case based only on the physical evidence and testimony of witnesses – but without the cooperation or testimony of the victim.
For most of us working in this field, we would agree that this strategy has been extremely successful in many domestic violence cases. Victims of domestic violence are often very relieved to know that they are not the ones who are responsible for deciding whether or not criminal charges will be filed. The goal for evidence-based prosecution is therefore to hold more offenders accountable for their crimes and also to decrease the risk of additional harm to the victim because the offender knows that the victim is not the one in control of decision making.
Based on the success of evidence-based prosecution with domestic violence cases, we have recently heard discussion about the possibility of extending its use to sexual assault. In support of this position, some professionals argue that the safety and welfare of a community outweighs the rights of an individual. As a result, the community has an interest in pursuing sexual assault cases regardless of whether or not the victim is able to participate in the criminal justice process. Because most sexual assault crimes are felonies (unlike many domestic violence crimes which constitute misdemeanors) -- and felonies are crimes against the state (and not an individual) -- it is clear that prosecutors are not legally required to have the victim’s consent or cooperation in order to file criminal charges in a sexual assault case. Therefore, there is no question that evidence-based prosecution is available to prosecutors in their toolbox for sexual assault cases. The argument is that this strategy should be used in the interest of enhancing community safety.
Another argument that is made in support of using evidence-based prosecution for sexual assault is the possibility that it might create the kind of positive changes that we have seen in the criminal justice system’s handling of domestic violence. Clearly, most prosecutors would not currently even consider pursuing a sexual assault case without the cooperation or testimony of the victim. But there was also a time when no one would have thought to prosecute a domestic violence case without the victim’s cooperation. Partly as a result of shifting attitudes in society and an increased understanding of the cycle of violence, we have seen significant decreases over the past decade in the number of domestic violence incidents and especially domestic violence-related homicides. Many would argue that the use of evidence-based prosecution has played an important role in contributing to this positive change. As a result, some professionals are asking what would happen if we forced sexual assault cases forward with the same degree of dedication that is currently seen with domestic violence (at least in some communities). Would we begin to see a similar change in the social attitudes about sexual assault? Would these changing attitudes then be reflected in a decreased incidence of sexual assault and/or increased rates of conviction for sexual assault offenders?
These are important questions, and we certainly agree that these are the kind of paradigm shifts that we all must consider carefully as we work to improve the criminal justice and community response to sexual assault. However, we want to use this Promising Practices article as a way of pushing these questions further and exploring the implications of using such a prosecution strategy with sexual assault cases, the realistic limitations of how and when such a strategy might be used, and the important differences between the criminal justice processing of sexual assault versus domestic violence. Yet the bottom line is that we cannot imagine sexual assault cases realistically being prosecuted without the victim testifying. And even if they were, it is hard to imagine that the prosecution could win a conviction. We therefore believe that the calls for evidence-based prosecution with sexual assault cases are based on myth and not reality.
Time for a reality check
In fact, we think it’s time for a reality check in the discussion of this issue. First, it is difficult to imagine forcing sexual assault prosecutions forward in cases where the victim does not want to go to trial when there are thousands of sexual assault victims in communities across the country who are desperately trying to pursue justice in their case – but, for a variety of reasons (usually “insufficient evidence”), criminal charges are not filed. If prosecutions are not being pursued in cases where victims want it, why would we spend our resources pursuing cases where the victim does not? If we really are considering using evidence-based prosecution in order to hold more offenders accountable, it seems like a better strategy to meet this goal would be to more successfully investigate and prosecute cases where victims desire prosecution. The reality is that evidence-based prosecution is only likely to be seen in cases that are high-profile or serial assaults committed by a stranger.
Another problem is that we all know a common tactic that is used by the defense in a sexual assault case is to attack the credibility of the victim. After all, rape cases are the only cases in which we need special rules (i.e., rape shield laws) to protect victims by keeping their sexual history and other personal information out of court. A moral argument could therefore be made that we need to do a better job with our investigations and prosecutions -- and do more to educate the jury pool (i.e., community members) -- before we put sexual assault victims at risk for further victimization from the offender as well as the criminal justice system by pursuing evidence-based prosecution.
Another argument that is made by many professionals, especially by victim advocates, is that evidence-based prosecution could be used as a way of pursuing successful prosecution in sexual assault cases without putting victims through the ordeal of going to trial. They correctly point out that there are many sexual assault cases where victims are so traumatized or fearful that they are simply unable to participate in the process of an investigation or prosecution -- let alone appear in court. If the case could be prosecuted solely on the basis of the evidence, they argue, such cases could be pursued and offenders could possibly be held accountable without requiring the victim to testify. This sounds promising, and of course we all struggle with the balance of trying to hold sexual assault offenders accountable while protecting victims from further trauma. However, evidence-based prosecution is unlikely to meet this goal because it is not very realistic to expect that it would work in the way that these individuals envision.
To understand what we’re saying, it requires walking through the logic of a sexual assault prosecution and understanding how it will typically unfold in the real world. First of all, we already know that the majority of sexual assault cases involve a victim and perpetrator who know each other, so the defense is not typically based on identification (i.e., “you’ve got the wrong guy”) but rather based on consent (i.e., “we had sex, but she wanted it”). This highlights one very important difference between the prosecutions of sexual assault versus domestic violence. While domestic violence is also a crime committed by a known offender, the defense in a domestic violence trial will never be based on consent. The law and common sense both tell us that a domestic violence victim cannot consent to having her arm broken.
However, we also know that the consent defense is often extremely successful in sexual assault cases, because our judges and jurors frequently share common societal beliefs that women “ask for” sexual assault by engaging in behavior that is seen as risky or morally questionable. As a result, the consent defense often succeeds, and sexual assault trials end with an acquittal or a hung jury. Because of the power of this societal belief, it is our opinion that physical evidence and witness testimony are unlikely to overcome the tendency of fact finders to doubt victims and hold them responsible for their sexual assault. Even when there are eyewitnesses to the sexual assault and/or a videotape, we all know of cases where the defense convinced the judge or jury that the acts were consensual despite the existence of a videotape. The reality is that the only evidence that is likely to be persuasive enough to overcome a consent defense is the testimony of the victim. The victim is the only person who can recreate the entire reality of the sexual assault, testify that the sexual contact was forced, and demonstrate the devastating impact that the crime has had on his/her life. Do we really expect a judge or jury to be able to make the proper decision in a sexual assault case -- and to get a sense of the trauma and pain suffered by a victim of sexual assault -- without hearing from that victim? Without victim testimony, we believe that it is extremely unlikely that sexual assault prosecutions would result in conviction.
But perhaps the most significant “reality check” that is needed when we talk about this issue is the fact that prosecutors (and victims) are not the ones who get to decide that a trial will proceed without the victim being called to testify. The defense does. We all know that the Constitution grants defendants the right to confront their accusers, and it is hard to imagine a defense attorney in a sexual assault case who would not subpoena the victim to testify. Therefore, even if prosecutors wanted to pursue “evidence-based prosecution” and not call the victim to testify, it is virtually guaranteed that the defense will produce a subpoena ordering the victim to do so. At that point, the victim is presented with two options, and it is difficult to determine which of the two would be more traumatizing. On the one hand, the victim can testify as a result of the subpoena, but everyone in the courtroom will know that the victim did not want to be involved in the trial and appears only as a hostile witness. It is difficult to imagine how the prosecution would overcome this challenge and win a conviction.

On the other hand, if the victim fails to appear in court in response to the defense subpoena, he or she could potentially be arrested for contempt of court. This would obviously be very traumatic for most victims, especially when they have been led to believe that they would not have to testify. In addition, defense attorneys in this situation can very easily argue that there is no better evidence to prove that the victim consented to the sexual acts in question than the fact that he/she failed to appear in court. In other words, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where victims could avoid testifying in their cases – other than being arrested -- and regardless of whether or not they testified, the fact that the case was pursued without their participation makes it extremely unlikely to result in a conviction. Is this really what we want? We don’t think so, and we don’t think this is what is envisioned by those professionals who are currently arguing for the use of evidence-based prosecution in sexual assault cases. We think it is simply a matter of not following the logic of something that sounds promising but would probably fail in meeting its objective and cause considerable trauma for sexual assault victims.

As a result of these concerns, it is our opinion that evidence-based prosecution currently represents more of a myth than a reality when it comes to sexual assault cases. However, there may be prosecutors out there who are successfully using this strategy, and if so, we would very much like to hear more about how this is being done. If your community is successfully using evidence-based prosecution with cases of sexual assault, please contact us to tell us more.
Anonymous/Blind Reporting and Third Party Reporting
There also seems to be a lot of talk recently about the issues of “anonymous reporting” (often referred to as “blind reporting”) and “third party reporting.” Because we are interested in these issues, we have frequently asked professionals in communities across the country to provide any protocols they have in place for implementing these alternative reporting methods. As a result, we have reviewed several community-based protocols on blind and third party reporting, but we have not yet seen one that specifies exactly how this will actually be done. Since we can’t offer you a model protocol, we will therefore use this Promising Practices article to at least define the terms and explore some of the factors to consider when crafting a protocol for implementation. We also want to note that much of the material in this section is drawn from training modules in the On-Line Training Institute (OLTI) that was recently launched by EVAW International. More information on the OLTI and these topics can therefore be found at
Anonymous or Blind Reporting
To begin, let’s define some of our terms. First, the terms “anonymous report” or “blind report” are used to describe a report that is made to a law enforcement agency that does not include identifying information for the victim. In other words, the victim remains anonymous.

  To further complicate matters, it is worth noting that some communities have protocols in place allowing victims to use a pseudonym (e.g., “Jane Doe”) or other confidential identifier on all of the medical and legal records associated with their case. This is a separate issue from the one we are discussing here, because in these situations the victim’s identity is known to the medical and legal professionals. The victim’s identity is just protected by using the pseudonym. In other words, it is the difference between victim anonymity (i.e., the victim’s identity is totally unknown) versus confidentiality (i.e., the victim’s identity is known, but protected). For the rest of this Promising Practices article, we will talk only about the issues associated with anonymous (or “blind”) reporting where the victim’s identity is completely unknown to the law enforcement agency receiving information about the sexual assault.  
When an anonymous/blind report is made to a law enforcement agency, it is clear that it will result in only a limited investigation. This may include, for example, checking in the agency’s database to see if there are any other similar reports that have been made, either in terms of geography or patterns of behavior by the suspect. The goal is therefore that anonymous/blind reports can increase the amount of intelligence that a law enforcement agency has regarding the realistic numbers and characteristics of sexual assault crimes taking place. The information may also help investigators to link multiple sexual assaults that have been committed by the same perpetrator, based on the similarities in the geographic region or patterns of behavior.
Of course, many people reading this article may recognize that communications personnel or other law enforcement professionals in their community might refuse to take information about a sexual assault from someone who insists on remaining anonymous. There could even be concerns about the officer’s safety when responding or even that the information has been fabricated, in an attempt to set up the person who is accused of committing the sexual assault.
Furthermore, even if the law enforcement agency is willing to take such an anonymous/blind report, they may not know exactly how to handle it, because it will not look like other crime reports that they are accustomed to handling. In fact, many law enforcement agencies would simply treat such an anonymous/blind report as if it were an “informational report,” because law enforcement personnel typically aren’t accustomed to receiving, filing, and retrieving crime reports without a victim who is identified by name.
  When we use the term “informational report,” we are referring to a report that is received by a law enforcement agency documenting an incident that does not meet the elements of a crime. In general, informational reports provide a way for individuals to report information to police on an incident that does not meet the elements of a crime. Sometimes these reports are made by citizens, and in other situations they are made by law enforcement professionals. If used properly, informational reports offer a necessary means for law enforcement agencies to document certain incidents that do not (yet) properly constitute a crime report. Informational reporting is likely to be appropriate as long as the case file and determinations are carefully reviewed by a well-trained supervisor or colleague. This supervisor or colleague can then provide the type of follow-up victim contact that was previously described, to verify that the information recorded in the written report is correct, repeat the offer of agency services, and provide additional community referrals and resources. As long as the agency tracks every single report they receive – and submits them for secondary review by a supervisor and/or other colleague with specialized training – informational reporting can be an important and extremely effective procedure for law enforcement agencies responding to sexual assault.  
It is our opinion, however, that anonymous/blind reports really should not be considered a separate type of report from all the other crime reports that law enforcement agencies receive every day. In other words, anonymous/blind reports should not automatically be categorized as informational reports simply because the victim did not provide identifying information. Rather, anonymous/blind reports must be characterized as a crime report or an informational report using the same criterion as any other report that includes identifying information for the victim: the criterion that determines whether a report is a crime report or an informational report is whether or not the incident meets the legal elements for a sexual assault offense. In other words, the criterion is based on the legal elements of a sexual assault offense, not the victim’s identification.
  • If an anonymous/blind report includes information about an incident that meets the legal elements of a sexual assault offense, it constitutes a crime report. The only difference from other sexual assault crime reports would be that the case file for the anonymous/blind report would not include the victim’s name or other identifying information.
  • On the other hand, if the information included in the anonymous/blind report does not meet the legal elements of a sexual assault offense, it constitutes an informational report. Again, the only difference from other informational reports would be the lack of victim identification.

Of course, anonymous/blind reports cannot result in successful prosecution without identifying information from the victim. However, a system for receiving anonymous/blind reports offers a number of other important advantages -- for victims, for law enforcement agencies, and for communities. These advantages are described by Garcia and Henderson in their (1999) article entitled: “Blind Reporting of Sexual Violence.” A summary of their points is provided here:

  • These benefits include the fact that law enforcement agencies can have a more comprehensive picture of the sexual assaults that are being committed within their communities. This helps to develop prevention programs and other community education initiatives, and it may help to identify serial offenders.
  • Blind reporting also allows victims of crimes such as sexual assault to report to police without taking on the burden of participating with a full investigation. The prospect of a law enforcement investigation and prosecution of their sexual assault can be terrifying for victims, and it often prohibits them from contacting law enforcement at all.
  • By providing information in a blind report, sexual assault victims have the opportunity to “try out” the investigative process and confirm for themselves that the incident was truly a crime. This can build the victim’s confidence in the system and establish a trusting relationship with the investigator, so the victim may decide that he or she can in fact take part in a full investigation.
  • Other benefits of blind reporting include the fact that victims can sometimes receive crime victim assistance from the state, which can help to cover any costs associated with the crime and subsequent investigation.
  • Of course, the process of reporting to law enforcement may also assist victims in the process of their recovery from sexual assault, by validating their experience and regaining a sense of control and personal autonomy.

Even though victims who choose to file an anonymous/blind report will not see their own case prosecuted without identifying information, another advantage is that they may still be able to assist criminal justice professionals if there are other victims who report a sexual assault committed by the same offender. Although many victims feel unable to participate in a prosecution of their own sexual assault, they are frequently willing to act as a witness in a case involving another victim of the same perpetrator. This information and/or testimony can obviously be extremely helpful for prosecutors, because it helps to establish a pattern of behavior and prior bad acts by the defendant. All of these benefits constitute very important reasons for law enforcement agencies to have an effective procedure in place for receiving, recording, investigating, filing, searching, and retrieving anonymous/blind reports of sexual assault.
For those law enforcement agencies that have not already established a system for anonymous/blind reporting, Garcia and Henderson (1999) offer the following guidelines. Specifically, agencies seeking to establish an effective mechanism for blind reporting must:

  • Uphold unconditionally a policy of confidentiality for those filing a blind report.
  • Accept the information offered, even if it is less than the investigator would like.
  • Accept the information whenever the victim might offer it.
  • Accept information from third parties.
  • Clarify options for future contact, including when and how victims may be reached. In some cases, this might be through a victim advocate or other service provider.
  • Categorize the information contained in the blind report, so it can be easily retrieved and analyzed.

As a result of these many advantages, Garcia and Henderson concluded that: “In the long run, victims, investigators, and the community all benefit from blind reporting.” This is one of the reasons why Canada has included anonymous/blind reports in their ViCLAS National Database. Anonymous/blind reports are thus analyzed along with all other reports of sexual assault.

Third Party Reporting
Some law enforcement agencies even allow victims to file reports of a sexual assault with a third party such as the local rape crisis center. This is another example of a best practice for community response, although it is relatively uncommon. If this practice is implemented by a law enforcement organization, it will again require establishing policies and procedures in collaboration with the rape crisis center or other third party who is authorized to accept reports.
The primary advantage of third party reporting is that it provides yet another option for victims, and it ensures that law enforcement has a more realistic picture of the sexual assaults taking place in the community. It also offers many of the same advantages as blind/anonymous reports that have already been discussed (e.g., allowing victims to “try out” the process, assisting in their process of recovery, and opening the possibility that they could assist in the prosecution of another sexual assault committed by the same perpetrator).
The primary disadvantage, however, is that third party reports will not typically result in anything but the most limited investigation by law enforcement and will not lead to criminal prosecution. This is similar to the issue discussed previously with respect to anonymous/blind reporting. In fact, most protocols for third party reporting typically allow for victims to remain anonymous. One exception to this disadvantage would be the situation where a medical professional or victim advocate recognizes a serial offender and a prior victim is contacted to see if he/she is willing to participate in a new investigation and prosecution. Victims are then given the option of either coming forward to prosecute their own case or agreeing to testify on behalf of another victim.
Another disadvantage is that victims are not typically eligible for Crime Victim Compensation if they file only a third party report. As a result of these disadvantages, it is therefore critical that all sexual assault victims are informed of their rights as a crime victim, and advised specifically how these rights might be affected by their decision to file a third party report or an anonymous/blind report made directly to a law enforcement organization.
As an example of how this “best practice” can be applied, we want to highlight the protocol for third party reporting that is available for the residents of Lawrence, Kansas. In that community, anonymous reports of a sexual assault can be completed as part of the Rape Victim-Survivor Service (RVSS) at the GaDuGi SafeCenter in Douglas County, Kansas. These reports are then forwarded to the Lawrence Police Department. To provide a sense of how this program operates, the RVSS Protocol for Anonymous Reporting developed by the GaDuGi SafeCenter is provided in its entirety:




Revised 5.20.05

  1.  The RVSS Advocate should provide the victim-survivor with all of the information about making an official report to law enforcement. Make sure s/he is aware that completing an anonymous form will not make her/him eligible for funds from the Crime Victim Compensation Board and that no legal action can be taken against the perpetrator without an official report.
2.  Find a safe, comfortable and confidential place to complete the form. The RVSS Advocate will be available for questions or can offer technical assistance pertaining to the anonymous report form. If a person needs assistance with reading questions, the RVSS Advocate can be available to help with that as well.
3.  The name of the RVSS Advocate (first and last) should be on the completed form.
4.  Ask the survivor is s/he would like to keep a copy of the anonymous report for his/her files. If so, make two (2) copies of the report. The original will go to law enforcement/detective division and will be assigned accordingly. One copy may be given to the survivor if s/he wants one. The third copy will remain with RVSS in a locked file specific to anonymous reports. The copy is sealed in an envelope with her/his first name and date of report.
5.  Ask the survivor if s/he would be interested in having GaDuGi SafeCenter keep his/her name and phone number associated with the anonymous report. At NO TIME will the survivor’s name be given to law enforcement without the survivor’s consent. The purpose of associating name(s) with the report is in the following events: future complaints are filed against the same individual, it is critical for a criminal investigation, or if it’s a matter of public safety. Law enforcement may contact GaDuGi SafeCenter for purposes of contacting the victim-survivor to inquire if s/he has changed the decision to report.
6.  The original form along with any narrative statements written by the victim-survivor should be submitted to law enforcement for a call number to be assigned. If a call number is assigned, law enforcement will notify the RVSS Advocate for purposes of recording on the sealed copy of the anonymous report. There will also be a label attached to the envelope stating “The victim-survivor does/does not want anonymous report opened or read.” If narrative pages are attached a label will be attached that states “the following statement are my words only and by signing I verify this statement to be true” and signed by the victim-survivor.
Additional recommendations provided by the staff of the RVSS program at the GaDuGi SafeCenter regarding third party reporting include the following:
  • Allow victims the decision to either complete the form themselves, or have the advocate complete the form on their behalf. Either way, the forms must be completed in the presence of an advocate whose name will be recorded on the form (both first and last, as indicated in the RVSS protocol).
  • Advise victims that they may use additional paper to complete their narrative, if there is not enough space on the form provided.
  • Ask victims to cross out any mistakes while completing the report, and initial them.
  • Record the time that the victim starts and finishes preparing the report.

For more information, a brief description of the protocol for third party reporting is provided at the website for the GaDuGi SafeCenter, along with a discussion of advantages and disadvantages for victims at: More information is also available in the On-Line Training Institute hosted by EVAW International.

  Making It Real
To make blind and third party reporting a reality, it is critical that communities work together to establish policies and procedures for how these reports will be handled. It is particularly important that victims are not misled about the severe limitations that anonymous and third party reporting place on the type of investigation that can be conducted. In many communities, for example, law enforcement investigators are overworked and they may not be able to spend much time looking at a case that does not have an identified victim. It is also critical that community protocols for blind and third party reporting address questions of evidence storage, ownership, and retention in these cases. To illustrate, forensic exams can be conducted in some communities without any involvement of law enforcement. In these communities, evidence from the forensic exam might be retained for a very short period of time at the hospital or other medical facility. However, we believe that best practice in this type of situation would be for the evidence to be held for the entire period of time covered by the statute of limitations for the crime -- because sexual assault victims who have filed a blind or third party report may need months, if not years, before they have the emotional resources needed to even attempt to navigate the criminal justice system. Yet hospitals are not equipped for this type of long-term evidence storage, and it is not reasonable or appropriate to expect community-based advocacy organizations or other similar agencies to store this evidence for a long time and properly maintain the chain of custody.
Of course, law enforcement managers and supervisors of property storage rooms are also likely to argue that they do not have sufficient storage space to meet this ideal. Particularly in those states where the statute of limitations for sexual assault has been extended or abolished, we certainly recognize that this best practice could cause some serious problems for the long-term storage of evidence. It is therefore clear that any community seeking to implement a protocol for blind or third party reporting must work together to address questions of receiving, storing, archiving, and retrieving the evidence in these cases.
Recently, we talked to a prosecutor who wanted to launch a marketing campaign to encourage victims who do not want to report to law enforcement to use a blind reporting system so that forensic examinations could be obtained in a timely manner and evidence analyzed for DNA. If a DNA profile is identified in these cases, it could then be entered into CODIS to check for possible suspects and possibly link the sexual assault to others in the database. Although this sounds promising, we cautioned this prosecutor that the procedures to be followed in such cases must be outlined very carefully, because we would argue that agencies cannot ethically process the victim’s sexual assault kit or any other evidence provided by the victim without the victim’s consent. It is not difficult to imagine how upset victims could become when they are contacted about a DNA hit for the suspect in their case when they never realized that the evidence from their forensic exam was going to be turned over to law enforcement personnel or processed in any way. On the other hand, law enforcement professionals and prosecutors are likely to be very excited about getting a hit in such a situation, because they know that victims are often willing to come forward once they learn that their perpetrator has also sexually assaulted others. Of course, this is not true for all victims, so it is critical that evidence from a sexual assault case only be processed with the victim’s knowledge and consent.
These are the kinds of questions that must be addressed before a protocol for blind or third party reporting is implemented. Clearly, victims who are weighing their options deserve accurate information and a realistic assessment of the pros and cons of the various alternatives.
As we stated at the beginning of this section, we have not yet reviewed a community-based protocol on blind and third party reporting that provides concrete guidance for criminal justice professionals on exactly how this will be done. Therefore, if you are aware of any community that has a written policy dealing with the issues we’ve discussed here, please send it to us.
  The Question of “Vertical Advocacy”
Once in a while, we work with professionals in a community where law enforcement professionals still question why community-based victim advocates should be involved in a sexual assault case. For example, we had actually been working with professionals in one particular community over an extended period of time, and we were really struggling with understanding the reluctance that we saw among law enforcement professionals to have an advocate present during follow-up interviews with the victim or meetings with the prosecutor. Finally, after extensive dialogue, we learned that this community -- a large metropolitan city -- does not have a rape crisis center or other community-based advocacy organization with paid advocates on staff. As a result, if an advocate is needed (e.g., when a sexual assault is reported, or an interview is scheduled), the law enforcement professional would have to call the hotline and the volunteer who is on-call at the time would respond to provide services.
Unfortunately, there are several problems with this scenario. First, most community-based advocates are discouraged or even prohibited in their agency policy from responding to field situations other than the hospital or facility where a forensic examination is conducted. However, this raises the question of what happens for all those victims who delay reporting to the point that no forensic examination is warranted. In these situations, the law enforcement interview may take place at the victim’s home or some other location within the community – a location where victim advocates (especially volunteers) may be prohibited from going.
For most of us working in this field, we would agree that best practice is to have advocates involved in a sexual assault case as early as possible, so victims have as much support as they can get -- as soon as a disclosure is made and regardless of whether or not a forensic examination is conducted. Yet the type of policy that we commonly see among community-based advocacy organizations discouraging or even prohibiting advocates from responding in field situations makes it extremely difficult to achieve this ideal. Clearly, community-based advocacy organizations need to consider this question very carefully, to craft a protocol for providing services to victims regardless of whether or not they report immediately.
In the community we described, the reluctance that we saw among law enforcement professionals to have an advocate involved made sense, once we understood the practice that was in place for calling out volunteer advocates. We can all probably see why this type of practice can make a difficult situation even worse, because neither the victim nor the law enforcement professional is likely to be comfortable in a system that requires a “new” volunteer advocate to step into the process at every turn in the road. This type of practice also severely limits the quality of services that a victim advocate is able to offer. While volunteer advocates certainly strive to provide the best services they can, their ability to do so is limited when they have no continuity in the cases that they handle and no ongoing relationship with the victims they serve.
We can also probably agree that the ideal would be for victims (and criminal justice professionals) to work with the same advocate throughout the process of investigating and prosecuting a case – at least to the extent possible. So, this is the vision behind the term “vertical advocacy.” Now, let’s talk about the reality of how vertical advocacy might actually work.
The goal of vertical advocacy is being modeled after a similar movement toward “vertical prosecution,” which is being utilized in many prosecutors’ offices to ensure that victims do not have their case handed off mid-stream from one prosecuting attorney to another. Obviously, the goal of vertical case management, whether it is practiced by law enforcement, prosecutors, or advocates is to maximize the potential for rapport between professionals and victims, as they work together through the various stages of the legal process – and to avoid any unnecessary trauma and disruption for victims. It is a worthy goal, and vertical case management, including vertical advocacy, clearly represents best practice for the community response to sexual assault.
However, 100% vertical advocacy is often impossible, because no single advocate or victim service provider can be on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is an important difference between the advocacy organization and other criminal justice agencies such as the police department or prosecutors office. The ideal of vertical case management is much more easily achieved by criminal justice agencies, because they are the ones who are actually managing the case. In other words, they can schedule interviews and meetings for times when they are on duty. For advocates, however, there is no way to ensure that all of the points at which a victim may need services will coincide with a time when they are scheduled to work. To achieve the goal of 100% vertical advocacy, therefore, advocates must be willing to provide services for a particular victim regardless of when they are scheduled or take place. This is an unrealistic expectation, and one that is virtually guaranteed to lead to burnout and turnover among victim advocates. It is certainly not consistent with the goal of providing effective services for victims.
Therefore, a more realistic scenario is one in which the initial response to a sexual assault case is handled either by a volunteer advocate or other staff member, with the goal of vertical advocacy met by assigning all subsequent follow-up with this victim to the same advocate/service provider (to the extent possible). Of course, this ideal can’t always be achieved, especially in community-based advocacy organizations with no paid staff or frequent turnover among staff and volunteers. However, this type of continuity can certainly help to build a trusting relationship between the advocate and the victim, as well as between the advocacy organization and other agencies with which they interact, such as the police department or prosecutor’s office.
In other words, “vertical advocacy” doesn’t have to be a myth. It can be a reality, as long as community professionals recognize that the goal of 100% vertical advocacy can likely never be achieved. While the initial response to a sexual assault may be handled by one advocate (either volunteer or paid staff), a realistic goal is for community-based victim advocacy organizations to strive toward achieving vertical case management (a.k.a. “vertical advocacy”) from that point forward. If we are successful in increasing the victim’s comfort level with support provided through this type of vertical advocacy, it is likely that victims will benefit more from the services that they receive. As a result, they may even be more likely to participate in the investigation and prosecution of their case. To that extent, we may be better able to hold sex offenders accountable for the crimes they commit. However, these goals can only be achieved if we all strive to work together within our communities -- across disciplinary boundaries -- in the service of pursuing justice and healing for all sexual assault victims.
If you are interested in finding out more about these issues, we invite you to attend the International Conference on Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Stalking hosted by EVAW International in Houston, Texas, April 16-18, 2007. Dr. Kim Lonsway and Sgt. Joanne Archambault (Ret.) will be facilitating a workshop at that conference, entitled: Best Practice or Buzzword: Sorting Out Fact from Fiction in the Community Response to Violence Against Women. This particular workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, April 17, 2007 from 3:00 – 4:30 PM. If you have ever struggled with these issues, as well as any other buzzwords you might have heard recently, please come to this workshop to sort out the fact from the fiction. Ample time will be allowed for workshop participants to ask questions regarding the professional disciplines of law enforcement, prosecution, advocacy, and forensic medicine. For further information about the Houston conference, go to
To Contact Us
Sgt. Joanne Archambault (Ret.) can be reached at:
Sexual Assault Training & Investigations, Inc.
P.O. Box 33
Addy, WA 99101-0033
(509) 684-9800
Dr. Kim Lonsway is available at:
EVAW International
3940 Broad Street, Suite 7, Box #150
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
(805) 547-9981


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