Two tenets of reporting sexual assaults — especially ones involving an acquaintance and alcohol that make up the majority of campus rapes — seem in direct conflict.
Empower victims to report only if, when and to whom they feel comfortable, even if that’s months or years later.
Or, report immediately to preserve evidence and increase chances the perpetrator will be brought to justice, either through a university or criminal investigation.
“It’s such an incredibly personal crime, because we know sexual assault is mostly perpetrated by acquaintances and loved ones,” said Chrissy Heikkila, executive director of the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center, formerly GaDuGi SafeCenter. “Sometimes they (victims) are not even sure that it’s criminal.”
Experts say certain steps can help bridge that empowerment-versus-evidence divide, most notably getting a sexual assault exam anonymously to be processed later if desired. At the same time, DNA samples or photographs that might be collected in a rape kit are only a few of the tools investigators can use to help substantiate a case.
“After the event there’s just a number of things we can do immediately that, over time, get lost,” said Sgt. Trent McKinley, Lawrence Police Department spokesman. “Once the evidence is lost, you can’t get that back.”
Local law enforcement representatives and sexual assault victim advocates both say it’s important to inform victims and let them choose whether to file a report.
However, it’s true that acquaintance rapes are notoriously difficult to prosecute in court, and hard evidence can only help.
University investigations have a much lower standard of proof — requiring only a preponderance of the evidence instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to find someone guilty — but evidence still is important for a thorough case.
“If they are interested in pursuing a criminal investigation, the sooner the better,” Heikkila said. “Because the farther away from the crime, it’s more likely to become to what people call a he-said-she-said case.”
Reporting delay ‘the norm’
National statistics show that in 85 percent of campus sexual assaults, the victim knows the offender, said Jen Brockman, director of Kansas University's new Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center.
In 72 percent of campus sexual assaults, one or both parties were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Brockman said. Often that takes the form of rapists using alcohol as a “vehicle” to commit crimes, including with incapacitated victims, she said.
KU’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access, which investigates sexual assaults between students as required by the federal Title IX law, tracks cases by when they are opened and closed, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said. She said the office doesn’t have data on how long after alleged incidents those cases are opened.
Brockman said she’s unaware of national statistics indicating how long victims take to report to universities or law enforcement, if they report at all.
But she has worked 14 years in victim advocacy and prevention, at two other Division I campuses prior to KU, and said she has seen most victims wait.
“The delay in reporting is the norm,” she said. “There are a lot of reasons, a lot of different hurdles, that survivors face in coming forward — and coming forward quickly.”
Foremost, she said, is self-doubt and blame. Victims often need time to understand that what happened to them was sexual violence.
Also, Brockman said, research shows that the brain operates under “trauma response mode” for the first 96 hours after an incident, and victims don’t have strong decision-making capabilities or memory recall.
“Survivors taking time before making that first police report can actually be beneficial,” Brockman said. “Even though that’s not what our criminal justice system supports right now.”
Anonymous rape kits buy time
Since 2009, Kansas law has required public medical facilities to perform sexual assault exams at victims’ request, free of charge to the victims.
Rape kits collected anonymously are sealed and sent to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, where they are destroyed after five years, according to the law. Anytime before then, victims can request that results be sent to law enforcement should they decide to pursue criminal charges.
“That’s an option that most survivors don’t realize,” Brockman said.
That buys them some time to decide what to do next, she said, and during the same visit they also can receive emergency contraception and treatment to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital performed about 70 sexual assault examinations last year, roughly 10 to 12 percent of which were done anonymously, said nurse Terri Woodson, the hospital’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE, coordinator.
Victims have up to 120 hours after an assault to request an anonymous, free exam in the emergency room, Woodson said. She said the hospital makes exceptions for special circumstances, such as victims who were bedridden or kidnapped and held in the same clothes for longer than that window.
But evidence collected in the rape kit is limited.
Other evidence, beyond biological
Without law enforcement involvement, detectives couldn’t swab a crime scene for evidence, for example, Woodson said.
Also, in cases where drug-facilitated assault is suspected, urine specimens are not part of the anonymous rape kit option, she said. They don’t “hold” and must be collected and sent to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation for testing quickly.
McKinley highlighted other categories of evidence police would look for, ideally as soon as possible.
Cellphone call and text records — which can show who involved parties were communicating with around the time of an incident — are one, he said. Without a special order, wireless carriers often purge that electronic data.
Sometimes, business or public surveillance cameras can show where involved parties were at a certain point in time.
“We always go and ask,” McKinley said, but without intervention those recordings get purged, too, sometimes automatically in a week or less.
Witnesses and verbal accounts are another category of evidence that’s valuable to sexual assault investigations, McKinley said.
“If you wait a period of time, say a year or more, and try to question somebody, even the most cooperative of witnesses may have a very difficult time recalling the specifics of that event,” he said. “The other thing that’s challenging for us is just to be able to track people down.”
That can be especially true for cases involving college students, he said. Finding people who’ve gone home over a break or moved away after graduation can be difficult.
University investigations consider much of the same type of evidence when it’s available.
‘That never happened’
For victims who aren’t ready to come forward but think they might later, Brockman said she encourages them to consider an anonymous rape kit and saving whatever they can on their own.
That might mean downloading screen shots of text messages or saving an article of clothing or bedding, ideally in a paper bag instead of plastic, she said. Documenting the incident in a journal also is good.
Even though a survivor’s verbal disclosure alone is enough to pursue an investigation, “these cases are really hard to prosecute,” Brockman said. “That evidence helps to provide continuity in the statements, corroboration.”
With nothing but a victim’s word it’s easy for a suspect to say, “That never happened,” McKinley said.
If there’s evidence proving that a sexual encounter did in fact occur, then that argument goes away and law enforcement and prosecutors can move on to corroborating a victim’s statement that the encounter was not consensual, McKinley said.
“We don’t want someone to get away,” McKinley said. “If somebody has a propensity for doing this sort of violent thing, they may have done it to others in the past, and they may do it to others in the future. However, it still comes down to a personal choice on the part of the victim — every situation is a little bit different, and every victim is a little bit different.”