Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Protecting the Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault

Julia Eve Preston, Staff Attorney

Julia Eve Preston, Staff Attorney

This week has been National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Organizations across the country are hosting events and supporting campaigns to raise awareness about sexual assault and the rights of victims of such violence.

In the District of Columbia, a victim of sexual assault is entitled to several rights.  In addition to pursuing criminal charges through the police and the United States Attorneys’ Office, an individual can file for a Civil Protection Order (CPO) based on a single incident of sexual assault, even in the absence of any particular relationship with the assaulter.  A sexual assault survivor can also receive safety planning and other legal and social support services through the various organizations and agencies represented at the Domestic Violence Intake Centers.  Legal Aid, for instance, meets with survivors when they file for CPOs against their abusers/aggressors, and provides legal representation throughout the CPO case.  In addition, Legal Aid connects survivors with various social service providers for counseling, housing, safety planning and other services.  Sexual assault victims may also be entitled to critical services through the Crime Victims Compensation (CVC) Program.  CVC can assist survivors with temporary emergency housing, relocation expenses, and the costs of replacing locks and enhancing security at survivors’ homes.  Particularly for low-income survivors, these resources can mean the difference between remaining in and leaving an abusive situation.

Statistics on intimate partner violence and sexual violence are stark:  36% of women were victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.  Sexual assault is widespread and a serious social problem.  Yet, I have noticed while representing survivors, those who file for CPOs rarely list incidents of sexual assault as among the events supporting their claim.  Often, they do not mention sexual assault at all.  Instead, the focus tends to be on other acts of violence: physical assault and threats to do bodily harm, for example.  I suspect that several dynamics are at play:

First, the breadth of acts that constitute sexual assault is often not well understood.  According to the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are such sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”  By contrast, popular understandings of sexual assault often set higher thresholds – physical injury, clear expression of non-consent, immediate rape-kit examination, etc.  And distrust of women who make sexual assault allegations remains all too common.  The result: too few victims of sexual assault seek safety and protection.  In the course of my work with clients, I have found that many of them have been raped or sexually assaulted by their partners.  Often, these violent and vicious acts remain outside of their cases because of their concerns that raising them will bring maltreatment by authorities and private individuals.   When they are raised, clients frequently use language that downplays the sexual assault – “he forced himself on me” – and only reveal it as part of providing background information about their relationship.

Second – and tragically – many of our domestic violence clients are inured to violence in their lives.  Some report that sexual assaults are regular occurrences for them.  Abusers hope that the regularity of the violence and abuse will force the victims into submission and strip them of control over their situation.  Such normalization of sexual assault in the daily lives of our clients is not always evident on the face of their CPO cases, in police reports, or when they seek medical treatment for other distinct injuries resulting from the abuse.

Third, many survivors of sexual assault are understandably reluctant to reveal in an open courtroom full of strangers and fellow community members the intimate details of the sexual abuse.  Moreover, since many of these cases involve little or no corroborating physical evidence, proceeding with a CPO case based on such charges can be daunting.

The Court process can and should empower survivors of sexual assault.  Sexual assault is pervasive in the lives of our clients, and we, as lawyers and advocates, need to recognize and address such issues when they are present and make efforts to draw them out when not.  Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Crime Victims’ Rights Week is an especially important time to examine the barriers survivors face filing for and litigating CPOs and — more broadly — in obtaining crucial support services related to sexual assault.

In addition to the legal and social services available through Legal Aid and the Domestic Violence Intake Centers, organizations such as DC SAFE, the Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC) and the DC Rape Crisis Center provide valuable services and resources to survivors of sexual assault.

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