Thursday, February 17, 2011

Notre Dame Rape Victim’s Case Parallels Experiences of Women in Chicago

The Chicago Tribune has a story today about a Notre Dame student who reports being sexually assaulted and how her family is speaking out about the treatment she received in the wake of her attack. The writers draw parallels to the case of Lizzy Seeberg, who took her own life this fall after allegedly being raped by a Notre Dame football player.
We are saddened and angry for both of these women and their families, and we want you to know that there are many, many people here in Chicago who are going through similar experiences in the wake of a sexual assault. CAASE and our partners in the community are witnessing an epidemic of victims who are attacked by acquaintances and who find a lack of resources to hold their perpetrators accountable.

The terrible reality is that people who are assaulted are often doubted at every turn—by police, prosecutors, and even their own loved ones. The problem of disbelief is often worse for women like those at Notre Dame who were attacked by acquaintances during incidents involving alcohol. Rather than believing these women and continuing a fair investigation that could lead to a trial, it seems that university officials did everything they could to protect the attackers from prosecution. CAASE sees the same issues here in Chicago, and we fight to counteract this through direct legal representation and advocacy. We must believe people who come forward after they are assaulted.

Our legal director, Kaethe Morris Hoffer, helps rape survivors to navigate the criminal justice system and to seek out options in civil court. She is a compassionate advocate for victims’ rights, and thanks to a generous grant from the Department of Justice, CAASE’s capacity to offer these free services is expanding. Kaethe meets with survivors and their families every week who simply want to be treated fairly.

The Tribune quotes the victim’s father as saying: "If there was a prompt, thorough and comprehensive investigation conducted and they came to the conclusion in consultation with the prosecutor that they could not successfully prosecute the individual, I would rely on that.” In Chicago even this approach doesn’t guarantee justice, as there is a lack of transparency about the way the Cook County State’s Attorney approaches sexual assault cases.

A study released last week by the Chicago Justice Project revealed that it is rare for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to pursue felony assault charges. The report states that while the police had filed more than 1,500 incident reports, only 288 sexual assault cases were approved for felony charges in 2009. That means fewer than 20% of reported sex crimes are being tried as felonies in Cook County.

The Notre Dame victim’s experience mirrors that of many people in Chicago—victims are kept in the dark about their cases, and they are asked over and over again if they really want to go through with pursuing charges. Even if the victim does stick with it, prosecutors may reject the case during their felony review process. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to provide data or information about their felony review process for the CJP report. Until the State’s Attorney’s Office provides transparency and more complete data, it is nearly impossible for advocates to analyze and improve our community’s response to rape.

CAASE urges the Chicago community to read the CJP report about our local law enforcement’s response to rape. Be educated about the realities of this problem right here at home, and know that CAASE stands with survivors of sexual assault every day as they seek justice. We know that our services are needed more than ever.

To learn more about CAASE’s legal services for survivors of sexual harm, click here.

Photo courtesy of Nigsby.

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