A task force set up by the D.C. Council to improve services for young rape victims in the city will recommend that 12- to 17-year-olds be provided with a new, confidential hotline and, in some cases, independent advocacy experts to accompany them during police interviews.
The council is expected this week to receive the task force’s report urging it to approve and fund the measures, which emerged out of concerns over mishandled cases and a fear that many juveniles don’t come forward to report sexual assaults, according to members of the task force.
One girl’s case that was highlighted by The Washington Post helped influence the task force as it drew up its recommendations — even though that case is far from resolved.
Danielle Hicks-Best was 11 when she reported to D.C. police in 2008 that she had been raped by older youths in her neighborhood.
Despite hospital reports detailing her injuries and a witness being questioned, she was the only one arrested — on charges of lying to police.
She was ultimately convicted and made a ward of the District, and her family has spent more than seven years campaigning for belated justice.
After The Post brought details of the case to the attention of police officials in the fall of 2014, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier acknowledged that errors had occurred on her watch and ordered a reinvestigation.
Hicks-Best, who is now an adult and chose to identify herself in the hope of helping other young rape victims, would not have been directly affected by any changes because she was 11 at the time she was assaulted. But she said she thinks access to a trained advocate would benefit other young victims.
“I think it would have made a big difference to have had someone advising me, because I felt frightened and bullied,” she said. Police records show she was interviewed by a detective who was hostile and skeptical of her account.
In October, a year after the new investigation was ordered, evidence collected in a forensic rape kit in 2008 but never tested was analyzed, according to her family.
Hicks-Best and her family said they were told by police that the analysis revealed the DNA profile of a man who investigators now think held Danielle down while she was being raped by two others in a basement apartment in the Northwest Washington neighborhood where she lived at the time.
But by the time police identified the DNA, they discovered that the suspect had been fatally shot several months earlier. A police official familiar with the investigation confirmed the family’s account.
Hicks-Best’s mother, Veronica Best, called the discovery that the man had been identified but was dead infuriating because he could have provided vital information as a witness and accomplice.
She said that her daughter had pointed out the suspect to police in 2008, as part of a group who hung out on the streets of their neighborhood, but that the information did not lead to him being questioned then or when the reinvestigation began almost seven years later.
Police said the investigation is ongoing, but the family is skeptical anyone will ever be charged.
“I’ve given up on justice. I’m at the point where I no longer hope for anything to come out of this case,” Hicks-Best said.
But the family is pleased that the task force has proposed changes that they think could lead to more crimes being solved.
“Six months into this whole thing in 2008, I realized it was about something bigger than just Danielle’s case. Now I think it’s absolutely wonderful that the task force supports these new measures that will protect other children,” Best said.
The task force’s mission was to suggest what further legislation was needed to expand the reach of the District’s Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2014, which deals with adult cases only.
The main provisions of that act were a new system of external oversight of law enforcement’s handling of adult sexual assault cases and the right to an independent, trained advocate to accompany victims and apprise them of their rights during interactions with police and prosecutors, among others.
Now the task force is proposing legislation that will allow youth aged 12 to 17 also to be offered an advocate in certain situations, according to members who described the report.
The task force recommends independent advocates for youths who report being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, friend, sexual partner or stranger who is within four years of their age, or a stranger who is more than four years older. That advocate would not be legally bound to tell either the victim’s parents or the authorities without the child’s permission.
Victims under the age of 12 or those who report being sexually assaulted by a parent or caregiver or someone in a position of trust and authority, such as a teacher, pastor or coach, should not be offered an independent advocate but continue to be dealt with by the multi-agency system now handling such cases, which includes police, child services and other agencies, the panel concluded.
The task force members could not agree whether to include 11-year-olds in their recommendations, and they held months of debate about whether 12 was too young for a victim who reports sexual assault to be offered confidential services but came to an agreement in recent weeks, members said.
“I think the need for these resources could be enormous, because we believe a high number of youths who are being sexually assaulted in the District are not reporting that to anyone currently,” said Elisabeth Olds, a task force member appointed in the role of independent expert consultant.
She said members had been motivated to agree on the recommendations after hearing about the experiences of young rape survivors, including Hicks-Best.
Task force member Nikki Charles, co-executive director of the Network for Victim Recovery of DC, said the consideration of confidential professional advocacy for some youth victims had proved a controversial topic during task force deliberations and would probably prove so when the report is debated by the council’s judiciary committee.
“There was pushback, and as a parent I, too, had questions. But as an advocate, I had to go in favor of the measure. It helps me to know that Danielle and her family are supportive of the recommendation. Her case was one of the major reasons it became an issue on the task force’s agenda,” she said.
Charles said that the presence of advocates is designed to build trust and teamwork between a victim and law enforcement that is about more than the victim’s feelings.
“If clients are less worried about whether they are going to be believed, they will be more likely to disclose important facts about their experience, which could ultimately increase law enforcement’s ability to solve the crime,” she said.
Task force members said one option for setting up a confidential hotline for young victims is to run it through Safe Shores — the DC Children’s Advocacy Center.
The recommendations will be considered by the council, although there is no specific timetable for when it might act.
D.C. Assistant Chief Peter Newsham had previously told The Post that Hicks-Best’s experience with law enforcement was “unfortunate” and that her arrest on a charge of lying to the police, and her subsequent handling by D.C. agencies, was “tragic.”
“I believe she was sexually assaulted,” he said recently.
Hicks-Best and her mother urged D.C. police not to close the case.
“The rapists are still out there,” Best said.