Seeking justice and safety after a sexual assault: Outlining the process

When someone finds themselves in a situation where they have been sexually assaulted, the first 24-hours are critical, Glynn says. It's important to know what to do, and what your options are. The YWCA Kalamazoo has plenty of resources available for survivors of sexual assault, many of which are discussed below, but for more information please visit their website

Artwork by Maya James

Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Out of these 1,000 cases, 310 on average are reported to the police, and only 50 will result in an arrest. According to RAINN, perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail than any other criminals. 

 

Jessica Glynn, Senior Director of Law and Policy and managing attorney at YWCA Kalamazoo, explains why. 

 

“Victims are not believed, they are not listened to, they are treated poorly, they are sent away,” Glynn said. “It’s laid bare that this is the experience, this isn’t the exception.”

 

Men and boys also experience sexual abuse and sexual assault, Glynn says, but the vast majority of survivors are women, and sexual assault remains a gender-based crime. This is important to understand, Glynn says, because far too much of whether the case gets charged, depends on who the victim is.

 

“We have not prioritized as a country, or in our jurisdiction, crimes against women. And the amount of cases that are charged, are abysmally few,” Glynn said. 

 

Members of the LGBTQ+ community also experience sexual assault at higher rates. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47 percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Glynn says that the YWCA also represents a disproportionate amount of women of color, considering the community’s composition. 

 

In the United States, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men reported experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Glynn says that in a lot of these cases, perpetrators are repeat-offenders. 

 

“If we do not do something about these crimes, the reality of the situation is that somebody who is out raping people, is that they will continue,” Glynn said.

 

When someone finds themselves in a situation where they have been sexually assaulted, the first 24-hours are critical, Glynn says. It's important to know what to do, and what your options are. The YWCA Kalamazoo has plenty of resources available for survivors of sexual assault, many of which are discussed below, but for more information please visit their website

 

lady justice, artwork by Maya James

If a sexual assault has taken place, consider the steps below to take care of your safety, your physical health and seek justice.

1. Make sure you are safe.

First things first, please get to a safe location, and surround yourself with people you trust. The YWCA has a 24-hour crisis hotline available to help you in these situations: 269-385-3587

2. Seek medical attention.

The YWCA has a sexual assault nurse examiner suite and clinic that is available 24-hours a day, at no cost to the survivor. If you find yourself in a situation, call their crisis hotline, and then proceed to their facilities. YWCA also has a Supportive Volunteer Program, which gives the client the option to have a volunteer be present and support the survivor through the exam process, said Mallory Kruizenga with YWCA Kalamazoo. 

 

From there, a forensic nurse will conduct a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam (SANE), that will take care of the survivors immediate health needs and preserve any evidence.

 

“My strongest advice to survivors is to get there as quickly as you can contemporaneous to the assault,” Glynn said.

 

The first 24-hours are crucial, but a lot of survivors experience shock, and might not completely process what happened until it is too late to collect physical evidence. This can be because perpetrators are often someone that the survivor trusted, according to statistics. There is typically a 120 hour window to collect physical evidence, said Kruizenga.

 

“So often,” Glynn said, “the first question is, ‘What just happened to me, was this an assault?’” 

 

Glynn suggests still getting medical attention and a SANE exam to preserve the evidence, and take care of their own physical health, even if the survivor is unsure of what their next step will be. All SANE kits are held with the YWCA for at least a year. If a survivor isn’t sure whether they would like to report the assault, they can still get evidence collected and saved for a year. They will be contacted by the same nurse that conducted their exam three months to a year later, to ask how they want to proceed. 

 

If the survivor wishes to report it, the evidence is sent to law enforcement and can be used by prosecutors in court. Law enforcement will generally proceed by tracing any samples sent to them.

 

3. Reporting to law enforcement

Many cases of sexual abuse never make it in the door of the criminal justice system, Glynn said. This is especially true for women of color who have experienced abuse. 

 

“What we know is, those initial experiences with law enforcement are critical,” Glynn said.

 

The experience of going into a police station, and walking up to a window in full view and explaining why you are there, is uncomfortable in itself. This situation can even be exacerbated, Glynn says, depending on the experience of the officer, and whether or not they have training in trauma informed interviewing. A negative experience may result in the survivor being re-traumatized. 

 

Survivors can instead choose to go to the YWCA, where they can make an appointment with an officer at the YWCA. 

 

“This is a much more comfortable environment to take the report, and provide counseling through the process so that the report is complete, and actually captures the experience of the victim,” Glynn said.

 

4. Obtain a legal attorney and/or advocate

There are already federal and state laws protecting victim’s rights, Glynn said, but many rights go unrealized if the survivor doesn’t have an attorney or victim advocate fighting for them every step of the way.

 

“You shouldn’t need an advocate every step of the way to assert and ensure your rights that are already outlined in the law,” Glynn said. “You shouldn’t have to have an advocate to be treated with dignity and respect. That should just be afforded by virtue of being a human being. But it's not.”

 

Most survivors are unaware that, when you are the victim of a crime that is reported to law enforcement and charged by a prosecuting attorney, all victim information is included in the charging document. This means that name, workplace, home address, date of birth, and any witnesses, are all listed on a document that is subject to FOIA, and any public access.

 

All of that information is public, Glynn says, unless you have an experienced attorney or advocate present that knows to ask for a pseudonym to be used, and for the address to be redacted. 

 

According to the Michigan Crime Victim Rights Act, the victim has the right to confer with the prosecution. If they are offering a plea deal, the survivor can ask them to reconsider. They also have the right to be heard at the trail by court, and the right to be notified throughout the entire process. The survivor also has the right to restitution, meaning the defendant must compensate the victim for losses suffered as a result of the crime.

 

“That is mandatory under state law,” Glynn said, “and the amount of time I have seen judges waive restitution, which again is mandatory, is appalling.” 

 

Without a victim advocate, it is likely that a case will not see the light of day in a court.

 

“We can have the best laws, but the truth is that they are rendered meaningless unless you have someone who is able to lift them up and fight for you every step of the way,” Glynn said.

 

5. Criminal Case vs a Civil Dispute

Glynn says there is a lot of confusion regarding the role of the assault survivor in a criminal trial. There is a common misconception that a criminal case is survivor vs. perpetrator, but the survivor is actually a witness in these situations. 

 

“They cannot drop charges as an independent person (as a victim),” Glynn said. “You are a compaintant, you are a witness in a criminal process.”

 

This means that the survivor is not part of the decision of whether the case gets charged or dropped. That is the role of a prosecuting attorney.

 

The criminal process, in assault cases, is the people v. defendant. If the survivor chooses to pursue justice via a civil suit, which is typically for money damages, the case is survivor v. defendant. 

 

“(A civil case) is another way for victims to lift up what happened to them and seek some semblance of justice through the legal system,” Glynn said.

 

In these cases, the survivor can sue the perpetrator for harms suffered, including emotional and physical trauma and harm.

 

Some survivors choose the civil route because the threshold for proof is lower. In a criminal system, the perpetrator needs to be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The civil threshold is proof beyond preponderance of the evidence. This means that enough evidence is presented to support that the claim has an over 50 percent likelihood of being true. 

 

6. Make a safety plan

Survivors should consider sitting down with a family member, someone they trust or a victim advocate to develop a safety plan after an assault occurs. 

 

A common first-step is to file a Personal Protection Order, a judicial order to stay away. This cannot be used in place of an eviction or custody order. 

 

Survivors do not need to go down to the 9th circuit court to apply. They can go directly to the YWCA, and an advocate will help you through the process of applying for a PPO.

 

More avenues exist if the assault took place in the workplace or at school. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Labor look into all issues involving discrimination in the workplace. The Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, also prohibits discrimination in Michigan on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status in employment, housing, education, and access to public accommodations. 

 

If the assault took place on campus, Title IX has additional requirements for educational institutions, including higher education and K-12. 

 

“Your school has to make reasonable accommodations for you,” Glynn said. “They cannot ask you to leave your class. There has to be an appropriate investigative process.” 

 

Contact the YWCA’s helpline by calling 269-385-3587, or find more information on the YWCA website

 

Raine Kuch Community Documenter/Journalist