RSVP Center hosts four panelists to speak on legalities of sexual violence cases

Panelists discussed barriers to reporting and how people can prevent sexual violence.

The Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center hosted a panel of four guest speakers on April 10 to speak on the legalities of reporting acts of sexual violence. Panelists answered questions ranging from barriers to reporting to how district attorneys abuse the legal system in their favor.

The panel consisted of MUPD Officer Jacob Clifford; Detective Heath Chinn of the Boone County Sheriff's Department’s Domestic Violence Enforcement Unit; Andrea Hayes, MU’s interim assistant vice chancellor for Civil Rights & Title IX and Katie Huddlestonsmith, a sexual violence victim advocate at True North of Columbia.

The panel was open to MU students and social workers. Audience members began by asking the panelists about how they balance the emotional toll of their jobs with their personal lives.

“I’ve gotten good at compartmentalizing,” Hayes said. “You can get so inundated by it because it’s all over the news and the media. It’s really trying to step back and not feel guilty about it.”

Hayes went on to describe how she would end up caring more about the case than the victim. She told the story of a client she had when she worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney with the DOVE Unit.

Her client was at a hair salon when her attacker pulled her hair extensions out and threatened her. Because he violated parole, Hayes wanted to prosecute him but ultimately decided against it.

“Given the unique circumstances of the case, it was safer for the victim to not prosecute him,” Hayes said. “I got so caught up in what I wanted that I forgot about my client’s wants and needs.”

An audience member then asked the panelists about their opinions of the legal system and how long it takes for sexual violence cases to be solved. Hayes said rape kit lab work takes approximately 18 months to be processed. She said she believes one way to fix these problems is to increase money and resources.

“It’s not like CSI where we have a giant database with everyone’s information in it,” Hayes said. “District attorneys and public defenders are also very busy. Everyone is dealing with big caseloads; dockets are full … It’s a long process.”

Young pointed out that because of how long this process takes, victims may feel discouraged from going to the authorities.

“I wish the system was working in such a way that people were more comfortable with reporting,” Young said.

Huddlestonsmith sees the effects this long process can have on her clients every time she goes to work. She went on to describe how frustrating this aspect of her job can be, especially when trying to guide her patients through the healing process.

“I had a court order violation case two years ago, and the only way to prove it was to get footage that the suspect was looking at the victim,” Huddlestonsmith said. “We called the sheriff department for the footage, but they said they were too busy working on two serial rape cases.”

Huddlestonsmith said she feels bad for her patients because it’s “harder for them to heal when part of their brains are still stuck on the attack.”

In addition, Chinn has found that some district attorneys will try to influence the outcome of a case. One tactic he’s noticed is attorneys trying to get victims to sign non-prosecution forms.

“There are times when [district attorneys] do cross a line,” Chinn said. “I’ve even seen evidence thrown out at motion to suppress hearings because of reports that contradict my report.”

To wrap up the discussion, the panelists shifted from talking about the flaws in the legal system to potential solutions. Huddlestonsmith has found that early intervention and prevention programs work best.

Although True North has stopped doing outreach programs, it still occasionally visits local middle schools to give presentations on consent and sexual education.

“Imagine how many 13- to 14-year-old kids think it’s OK to have sex with someone while they’re sleeping, or not understand that if someone consented earlier but changed their minds that it’s still not OK,” Huddlestonsmith said. “If we did more early outreach and education, we would be doing great.”

Edited by Skyler Rossi |

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