For Victims, rape is horrific. Sometimes, so is the justice system.

First in a three-part series on the impact and importance of sexual assault response teams (SARTs).

Rape is one of the most traumatic events or woman or man may face. It’s emotionally wrenching and often physically traumatizing, as well. Rape can strip the victim of a sense of self and self-worth. It can lead to years of depression, self-doubt, drug and alcohol abuse, and dysfunctional and failed personal relationships.

Just as damaging, the process of reporting, investigating and prosecuting rape can compound the victim’s mental and emotional suffering. It can be so overwhelming it may discourage the victim from reporting the crime at all, or from following through if the case is charged. This not only deprives the victim of deserved support and justice, it also leaves the perpetrator free to rape again.

How the justice system can fail the victim.

Typically, a rape sets into motion specific steps by the medical, law enforcement, victim advocacy and legal communities to care for the victim, investigate the crime, and prosecute accused perpetrator(s). The process aims to support the victim and find justice.

However, for the victim, the progression from rape and reporting the crime to courtroom trial and perpetrator sentencing can be daunting, exhausting and painful. Often, it becomes a journey of revictimization and a sense that the system lacks compassion. As a result, too many victims fail to obtain justice — and too many continue to suffer far too long.

Simply Google “How justice system fails rape victims” to get a clear sense of the traumatic and emotional challenges faced by rape victims. These challenges impact victims’ willingness to report rape or to see it investigated and prosecuted.

It is, however, important to know that when the justice system fails a rape victim, it most often is not for lack of caring, concern or investigative and prosecutorial due diligence. Rarely does anyone purposely try to compound a rape victim’s pain or suffering.

The unfortunate fact is that the nature of the crime, cultural stereotypes, rape myths and misconceptions, and the complexities involved in investigating and prosecuting sexual assault can subject the victim to continued pain, including the rigors of a medical-forensic exam and repetitive questioning about the crime, sometimes by professionals who appear to be insensitive and who may not understand the victim’s response.

An additional issue is that several disciplines become involved in investigating and prosecuting a rape case. They have different — sometimes competing — objectives and priorities in investigating the crime, supporting the victim and obtaining justice. It can seem an impersonal process that doesn’t make a priority of the victim’s interests or peace of mind.

Sexual assault and its aftermath are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Over the past several years, sexual assault has occupied more news headlines and more print and electronic space than ever. There’s been a huge uptick in public and legislative awareness and attention to rape, and the pain and problems it creates for victims, communities and the professionals who deal with the crime and its consequences.

New legislation is being proposed, executive orders issued, the medical response challenged, police departments and prosecutors’ offices scrutinized and at times taken to task, old attitudes and beliefs about the crime and the victim debunked. The trend is toward improving the response system to better support victims, investigate and prosecute the crime, and hold perpetrators responsible.

While media attention and new legislation are important, a proven strategy remains underutilized.

A better way for responding to rape.

The sexual assault response team, or SART, is a formal, community-based collaborative effort among professions. Since the mid-1970s, it has generated an excellent track record for improving victim-centered care and support, and smoothing and expediting the path to justice. However, SARTs operate in only a small fraction of American communities. That needs to change.

In the next blog, I’ll look at how a SART works to benefit rape victims and communities. My final article in this 3-part series will cover the basics for starting and operating a successful SART in your community.

NEXT TIME: When a SART comes to your town.


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