Among Karl A. Racine’s duties as the District’s attorney general, prosecuting crimes committed by juveniles can be the most challenging — especially sex offenses.
As we all learned after watching last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on whether to move forward with a vote to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the challenge often begins with getting the alleged victim to talk.
“For a very long time, I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details,” Bethesda native Christine Blasey Ford told the committee, explaining why she had kept secret her allegation that Kavanaugh had assaulted her 36 years ago. She was 15 at the time. And even though she tried to talk about the alleged assault at moments over the years, she stopped, she said, because “recounting the details caused me to relive the experience and caused panic attacks and anxiety.”
Kavanaugh has denied assaulting Ford. But one result of their testimonies before the committee has been a flood of adult women, and men, coming forward with their stories of assault as children and teens.
In the midst of #MeToo, #IBelieveHer and #WhyIDidn’tReport, the truth is today’s sex assault victim is no more likely to report the offense than Ford was when she was a girl. The reluctance is as pervasive as the crime is epidemic.
So Racine (D) decided to do something about that. He recently set up a special victims unit, hoping to take some of the fear out of the victim’s quest for justice. The new SVU includes a team of specially trained prosecutors who focus on cases in which juveniles commit sexual assaults and other crimes against other juveniles. The unit also works to prosecute juveniles who commit crimes against the elderly and disabled, as well as adults charged with indecent exposure. Everyone is trained in “trauma informed” interviewing, which helps elicit sensitive details of a crime without causing unnecessary discomfort.
Instead of a victim being juggled back and forth among harried prosecutors, there will be only one litigator working with the victim until the case is closed. Better to build trust and keep lines of communication open. The prosecutor also coordinates with other city agencies, such as police and mental-health officials, to provide whatever support services the victim needs.
“We have vulnerable victims who need to be treated with respect,” Racine said.
Lots of victims.
In 2016, a task force set up by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to analyze the District’s sexual assault victims rights laws issued a report that included a statistical portrait of the problem. The city had about 41,535 youths ages 10 to 17 at the time.
Of that number, 1,531 youths ages 10 to 13 were believed to have experienced “sexual victimization of some kind,” including felony sex assault within the preceding year, the task force found. Among those 14 to 17, an estimated 3,528 had been sexually victimized during that same time, with most of those crimes being felony sex assaults, which include assaults with the intent to commit sexual abuse.
The task force estimated that only about 8 to 13 percent of sexual assaults against juveniles were being reported to authorities. And some victims were more reluctant to come forward than others.
“African American girls were found to be significantly less likely to disclose their assault than their European American counterparts,” the task force said, “and male victims of all races and ethnicities are especially unlikely to disclose sexual abuse to anyone.”
There are many reasons victims don’t report the crimes. Fear, shame and self-blame are often enough to seal the lips and tie the tongues for decades.
“Oftentimes, it’s difficult for victims to come forward because they’d be coming into a system that could re-traumatize them,” Racine said.
Re-traumatized — not just by unsupportive parents or fair-weather friends but the very institutions that are supposed to help them. Whatever injuries a victim sustains during a sexual assault, having to deal with cynical police, overworked prosecutors, merciless defense lawyers and gender-biased juries only makes matters worse.
Mina Malik, deputy attorney general for public safety, put the SVU’s mission this way: “We want people to feel comfortable cooperating with us. We want them to know that we will support them and help them get through this.”
The effort still hinges on getting victims to report the crime to police. According to the sexual assault task force, as many as 85 percent of victims do tell their peers “and use the reaction of those friends as a litmus test for how others, including the authorities, might react to a disclosure.”
The SVU is in the process of scheduling community outreach programs at various schools and community centers. Prosecutors will explain how the unit operates, how to report an assault, what to expect when you do and how to recognize signs that someone you know may have been sexually assaulted and answer questions. It would do well to include advice on how to help a friend who has confided such a secret.
The team’s work will be supported by Seema Gajwani, the AG’s special counsel for juvenile-justice reform and section chief for the restorative-justice and victims-services section.
“One of the things you learn from victims is what they want from the criminal justice system,” Gajwani said. “They want a voice. They want their questions answered. They want the perpetrator to express remorse, not just say ‘I’m sorry’ but to demonstrate it. They want to know that the perpetrator will never do to anybody else what was done to them.”
The more they come forward, they more they will be heard.
Racine watched Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee — a setting where, like a courtroom, an assault victim easily could end up being re-traumatized. But Ford showed the courage of her conviction and named her alleged attacker, after all these years. He was 17 at the time. Today he’s up for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the nation.
“She didn’t feel comfortable coming forward as a teenager,” Racine said. “She didn’t believe that she could get the help she needed and had to struggle for many years as a result.”
One could only imagine the suffering that she and other survivors might have been spared if they’d had a team of trauma-sensitive prosecutors fighting for them. At least D.C. has one now.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.