Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Taking it to court: protecting survivors of sexual harm

By: Leena Saleh, CAASE Communications Manager

Imagine that you’re the victim of a traumatic crime who, prior to any investigation, is assumed to be lying. Then you are asked to build a case to prove you’re a victim, but you probably have little to no experience navigating the legal system. Like with many survivors of sexual violence, that means you’re in for a world of confusing obstacles, leaving you unprepared and unprotected.

The uphill battle
Survivors of sexual violence are often blamed for their own victimization. They confront law enforcement, court personnel, or judges who seem unwilling to take their cases seriously. 

Our clients hear things like,
“Are you sure this happened?”
“Well, why were you out with him in the first place?”
“This case is going to take a long time and not go anywhere, so why even bother?”
“But he has a family, why ruin that over something small?” 

These attitudes can result in inaccurate or incomplete police reports which discourage survivors from following through with an investigation, let alone a criminal case.

The challenges don’t end there.

Survivors don’t always know what legal options or rights they have to protect themselves. Their experiences with the criminal justice system are long and difficult. These challenges often extend to the court process, too. Judges and defense attorneys disregard survivors’ rights to privacy and dignity. One example of this is when defense attorneys try to access a victim’s private mental health records to discredit her on the stand.

With the odds stacked in the perpetrator’s favor, having the right expertise and tools could make the difference between an unfair trial in which survivors experience re-victimization, and a trial where survivors can attain justice, with their dignity intact.

Protecting survivors of sexual harm
The very process of criminal proceedings plays a large part in leaving survivors unprotected. Sexual violence cases are assigned to prosecutors from the state’s attorney’s office. This means that the state’s attorney’s office prosecutes the case on behalf of the state, not the survivor.

Survivors essentially have no role in the case, other than being witnesses. Decisions are frequently made without concern for the victim’s needs and desires. To add insult to injury, survivors are not always informed of the difference between the state’s attorney and having their own victim’s rights attorney.

These problems were the driving force behind survivor leadership and advocacy organizations, (including CAASE) passing the Rights for Crime Victims and Witness Act (RCVWA). This act provides survivors with the legal tools needed to enforce their constitutional rights to an attorney and to privacy and dignity. Equipped with a victim’s rights attorney, survivors have a much better chance at a fair case. Victim’s rights attorneys are able to inform survivors of all their legal options, give sound advice to match their unique needs, and ensure they have legal representation during police interviews and the court process.

Moving forward
In order for these laws to effectively transform the criminal process, judges and state prosecutors need to be educated and trained on survivor rights, and learn to protect these rights in court.

As Cook County residents are tasked with electing a state’s attorney next month, our community has a great opportunity to demand that the office prioritize the rights of survivors of sexual violence. Survivors of sexual harm deserve someone who represents their needs fully, and can make their voices heard.

See a recap of our candidate forum  and learn what the state’s attorney candidates plan to do to address sexual violence.