Over the past year, the Star Tribune series “Denied Justice” has highlighted the incredible courage of survivors and, in most cases, the shortcomings of our collective criminal-justice response to sexual assault. Recently, the attorney general’s work group and a POST Board committee have introduced reforms.
While we applaud these reports, they must signal the beginning of a new stage of work, not the end.
We have read the series with equal parts of recognition that these stories need to be told, and sadness that there are still so many to tell. We are current and former advocates, each with many years of experience addressing and seeking to prevent sexual violence.
In addition to supporting survivors, advocates play the dual roles of criminal justice colleague and critical friend in the local response to sexual assault. We are serious about building relationships with law enforcement, prosecutors, medical colleagues and others to better understand their roles and responsibilities and to help them understand ours. Our collaborations have led to important changes in responses to sexual assault cases that could not have happened without cooperation from these partners.
Yet, as we read the Star Tribune series, it’s clear it hasn’t been enough to ensure that every survivor who trusts us with a report of sexual assault has his or her case thoroughly investigated.
A little over 20 years ago, we each played a part in a multiyear project to create a model protocol for sexual- assault response in Minnesota. We traveled the state listening to survivors, community members, advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, medical personnel and others. Criminal-legal system professionals in the mid-1990s, like many today, expressed caution for legal mandates. We took seriously that these professionals, if equipped and incentivized, could make meaningful changes to policy, training and systems they knew best. So we created a model protocol but did not mandate it. Instead, we wrote grants, partnered with local communities to learn how they might address their own gaps, advocated for resources for local communities, changed some laws, sponsored training.
In these same 20 years, investigations into systemic failures in sexual-assault response by journalists, researchers and, ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice were undertaken around the country. We now have documentation of the systemic issues that is too significant to ignore. Given its well-researched approach, the “Denied Justice” series adds Minnesota to this documentation.
We share this context to speak to professionals and the public alike who may be tempted to dismiss the findings of the series for one reason or another. This would be a mistake. While the “Denied Justice” series may not offer a complete picture of sexual-violence response in Minnesota, its findings are consistent with both the anecdotal and investigative data about our systems’ shortcomings.
So, as the final reports are issued, and the compelling series reaches a conclusion, we caution against a sense of resolution. Mandates and models will need to be localized to deliver the outcomes we seek. Too often a given practice has differential impact on survivors based on race, gender, class, orientation, ability level, geography, etc. Similarly, different kinds of sexual-assault cases in different settings generate different kinds of challenges. Sufficient resources, particularly in rural areas and on reservations, are almost always an issue.
To improve our systems, we will need ongoing curiosity, leadership and oversight at both the local and state levels. These efforts must include the insight and expertise from advocacy and survivor voices.
Minnesota has the capacity to get this right. Will we sustain the will to ensure the improved response we desire? Right now, even today, survivors are depending on our answer.
Laura Williams is a consultant and former manager of the Sexual Violence Justice Institute at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). Jeanne Ronayne and Donna Dunn are former executive directors of MNCASA.