From the hospital to the courts, a team of advocates and officials in Hennepin County have created a plan to make it easier for sexual assault survivors to navigate the system.
The Sexual Assault Multidisciplinary Action Response Team (SMART) includes members from each of five disciplines likely to be involved in a sexual assault victim’s experience — including law enforcement, medical personnel, advocates, prosecutors and corrections officials. Together, they’ve developed a plan that improves communication between the county’s agencies that could make the criminal justice system more open and available to victims of sexual assault, particularly those from marginalized communities, said Cmdr. Melissa Chiodo of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Special Crimes Investigations Division.
“We have created a system where we are accountable to each other and have opened the lines of communication,” she said at a news conference. “We are also training our own staff on how to deal more sensitively to the victims and assure them they get the highest quality of service from us.”
The initiative, seven years in the making, is a collaboration led by the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis, and is geared toward increasing the trust of sexual assault victims, which is already improving slightly. Every year on average, Hennepin County Medical Center conducts more than 800 sexual assault exams — more than half in the state. Last year, 65 percent of exam patients reported their assault to law enforcement at the time of their exam, a 10 percent increase over reporting from last year. However, sexual assault remains the most underreported crime, with 63 percent of rapes being reported to law enforcement, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The new protocol includes a 27-page manual with recommendations — not requirements — that can help officials from a variety of disciplines meet the needs of survivors. Key among them: Compassion, collaboration, communication, choice, and cultural responsiveness. Statistics show that minority women are more susceptible to sexual assault.
A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among adult sexual assault victims, 33.5 percent were multiracial, 26.9 percent were Native Americans, 22 percent were black, 18.8 percent were white and 14.6 percent were Hispanic or Latino.
The changes, once implemented, could, if only in part, ease the trauma for victims.
“Before, all the various entities were working in silos and victims had to figure out the system by themselves,” said Kristen Houlton Sukura, executive director of the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis. “These changes have been dramatically overdue. I’ve had victims tell me that ‘what I had to go through after my rape was worse than the actual crime.’ I don’t ever want to hear that again.”