A mishandled rape investigation involving an 11-year-old girl has become a driving force behind proposed legislation to help reform how D.C. police deal with juvenile sexual-assault cases.
A special task force of experts created to make recommendations to the D.C. Council recently began discussions over whether to mandate that juvenile rape victims have the right to trained advocates.
The case of Danielle Hicks-Best, which was highlighted in The Washington Post in March, is galvanizing policy chiefs and lawmakers anxious to address shortcomings in Washington’s juvenile justice system.
Kenyan R. McDuffie (D), the Ward 5 council member and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is awaiting the task force’s recommendations, described the handling of the Hicks-Best case as “alarming.”
“This should never happen again. We want to make sure that no one has to go through what she had to go through,” he told The Post.
In 2008, at the age of 11, Hicks-Best told police that she had been brutally raped on two occasions by youths in her Columbia Heights neighborhood.
No one was detained and — despite a hospital report showing genital and other injuries and medical opinion that she had been sexually assaulted — she was arrested and charged with making a false report. She was ultimately convicted and made a ward of the court.
Hicks-Best, now 18, has a 3-year-old son, and they are living in Maryland with her adoptive parents. She revealed her identity and story to The Post after a fruitless campaign for belated justice in a case that police now say was “unfortunate.”
After The Post contacted D.C. police last fall seeking comment, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier called Hicks-Best’s family to apologize and ordered a fresh investigation into the original sexual-assault cases. Lanier said that she is not able to comment publicly on an individual juvenile case but that in a situation similar to Hicks-Best’s, the victim should never be arrested. She recently declined to comment further.
Eight months into the new investigation, no suspects have been detained.
Authorities said they also are unable to consider whether the department should take disciplinary action against any officers or commanders involved in the case because too much time has passed since problems in the handling of the investigation came to light.
Police regulations require action to be taken within 90 days of when the department “knew or should have known” about alleged misconduct in its ranks, according to copies of the rules supplied by both the police department and the D.C. Council.
“There is a statute, and we have to abide by that, as unsatisfactory as that can be in some cases,” Assistant Chief Peter Newsham said.
But he added: “It’s very unfortunate what she had to go through. It’s a tragedy what happened to this young lady.”
Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, declined to comment on the case.
McDuffie said he is extremely troubled by the reported conduct of the officers in that case. He said he is closely watching as the task force considers whether to extend to juveniles certain provisions under the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act, which took effect last year.
It had been steered through the D.C. Council by Tommy Wells — the Democrat who formerly represented Ward 6 and McDuffie’s predecessor on the Judiciary Committee — after a series of complaints about D.C. police’s handling of rape cases.
The law mandates external oversight of how the police handle sexual assaults and gives a victim the right to have a trained, independent advocate present during police interviews and hospital exams.
But the law currently applies only to adult cases.
The task force, which is made up of health and legal experts from the District, senior police officers, children’s advocates and specialists in victims’ care, started work last October and must submit recommendations to the Judiciary Committee by Sept. 30.
It spent its first six months helping to implement the new adult provisions and reviewing adult cases. But juvenile reforms moved to the top of the agenda, starting with a meeting held earlier this month.
“Danielle’s experience could have been drastically different had she had access to a trained advocate,” said Nikki Charles, co-executive director of Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. and a member of the task force.
She said it was likely that an advocate would have helped her get early access to legal services “that could have ensured she was not arrested or charged with false reporting.”
The task force is initially considering advocates for victims over age 13, which would not have helped Hicks-Best in 2008. But Charles said that no decisions have been made and that the task force will have an open discussion and intends to tackle the many complex issues involved in crimes against children.
“Cases like Danielle’s illustrate how much more work there is to be done so that people don’t slip through the gaps. The task force is committed to working through these issues,” she said.
Lanier rewrote police procedures in August 2011 covering sexual assault investigations for adults and juveniles. But according to several D.C. officials, it took longer for changes in personnel and policy to start making a difference in practice — and the reform process is continuing.
“It’s still a work in progress, most definitely,” said D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who serves on the Judiciary Committee and, unlike McDuffie, was a committee member when the legislation was being written in 2013 and 2014.
“But we are doing far better today than we were six years ago,” she added. “It’s very important that we bring closure to Danielle’s case. . . . The police need help from the public. Someone knows something, and they should follow the leads to the appropriate conclusion.”
At 18, Danielle is studying for her GED, having dropped out of high school.
“For them to say nothing can happen to any of the officers involved, I feel like that’s real wrong,” Danielle told The Post.
The prime culprints in her case have not been identified.
The first case, in April 2008, was investigated by Detective Kenneth Carter. In the first assault, Hicks-Best reported that she had been lured into a grubby basement in Columbia Heights, a few blocks from where she lived, and held captive all night by two young men who raped her repeatedly. A few weeks later, she told police that she was snatched off the street by a group that included one of the same men and raped again. That case was investigated by Detective William Weeks, who arrested Hicks-Best.
Both detectives worked in the Youth Investigations Division. Both are now in other units and no longer investigate sexual assaults.
Hicks-Best’s family spent years writing to police and lawmakers and holding prayer demonstrations outside the police department’s Youth Investigations Division, lobbying for a review of her case.
Veronica Best, Danielle’s adoptive mother, said it is important that police continue to focus on the reinvestigation.
“We feel very let down,” she said.
Walters is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the Observer and Marie Claire, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @joannawalters13.