Meet A Survivor Re-Defining Justice and the Nonprofit Helping Her Do It

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As part of SAAM, Born This Way Foundation is posting a series of guest blogs from sexual assault survivors and awareness and prevention advocates. We want to ignite the conversation around sexual assault and end it. Today’s guest blog comes from the Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC). The NVRDC was established in 2012 to provide a seamless network of referrals and services to all crime victims.  

Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual assault. If you are in immediate danger, please call 911. Please call 800-656-4673 if you would like to speak with the National Sexual Assault Hotline or connect with their online hotline here.

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Laurel [1] had waited more than a year for this moment. It was almost two years since she went to a concert with friends, took a drink that someone offered her, and woke up the next morning in a blood stained bed with vomit on her pillows and no clear memory of what had happened. It was with shock, horror, and panic that she realized she was raped. After receiving an invasive medical forensic exam, filing a police report, telling and re-telling her story to strangers over and over, and after months of waiting, she was finally here. Now, sitting in a room with her victims’ rights attorney, the detective assigned to her case, and the Assistant U.S. Attorney who would decide the outcome of the investigation—she was ready to hear the decision. Her assailant had originally told police that he didn’t have sex with Laurel but then, after being told that his semen was found in the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) kit, changed his story to say that the two had sex but that it was consensual. But Laurel would never know what a judge or jury would have to say about this change in his testimony or anything else, because at this meeting she was told that her case would not be prosecuted due to lack of evidence. Her assailant would face no consequences in the criminal justice system.

Sadly, Laurel’s story is not unique. According to RAINN, only 32% of rapes even get reported to law enforcement. Only 3% are referred to prosecutors, and only 2% ever lead to a felony conviction.[2] Societal misconceptions and rape myths perpetuate the challenges that survivors face while going through the criminal legal process. Questions like “How much did you drink?” and “Why did you let them into your home?” perpetuate the fact that many people still see survivors as at least partially responsible for what happened to them.

It took Laurel two months to decide whether or not she was ready to report the assault to law enforcement. Going into it, she knew that the chances of her case being prosecuted, let alone of getting a conviction, were very small. Even though the kit contained evidence that clearly showed that they had sex, Laurel’s victims rights’ attorney told her that even with evidence many cases never go to trial. Despite the fact that she knew reporting would force her to tell and retell the story of her assault to strangers who may not believe her, ultimately she decided that she needed to take a stand for herself and for other survivors. It took one meeting for her hopes for a day in court to be washed away.

Wraparound support for survivors

Laurel is one of hundreds of survivors NVRDC has met since first opening their doors in 2012. Their mission is to empower victims[3] of all crimes to achieve survivor defined justice through a collaborative continuum of advocacy, case management, and legal services. NVRDC first intersected Laurel when she went to MedStar Washington Hospital Center to receive her medical forensic exam following her assault. One of NVRDC’s case managers stayed with her the whole time to provide emotional support and to give her information about the choices available to her after the exam. Laurel’s case manager connected her with one of NVRDC’s attorneys who gave her legal advice and assisted her with reporting and with the investigation process. Her NVRDC attorney was the one sitting beside her when the prosecutor told her that her case was not going to move forward.

One of the things that makes NVRDC unique among other service providers is the fact that they provide comprehensive and wraparound services regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, religious affiliation, income-level, or immigration status for as long as they’re needed. Oftentimes survivors need to go to one organization for hospital accompaniment and case management, another to find a lawyer for assistance filing for a civil protection or restraining order, and yet another for legal representation during the criminal investigation and prosecution. In many places around the country, survivors do not even have access to organizations in their area that provide crime victims’ rights representation.

NVRDC’s vertical advocacy model ensures that the same case manager who a survivor meets at the hospital during their exam remains their case manager for as long as they are needed in the survivor’s recovery. It also allows their clients to connect with a single attorney who can guide them through all aspects of the legal system. Research has shown that rape survivors who receive the assistance of an advocate were significantly more likely to have police reports taken when reporting the crime to law enforcement and were less likely to be treated negatively by police officers. These survivors also report experiencing less distress during their involvement with the legal system. This is especially pertinent given the fact that sexual assault survivors are more likely than others to experience negative social consequences. They are three times more likely to suffer from depression, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.[4] Research has also shown that crime survivors who receive wraparound supportive services report greater satisfaction with their experience in the justice system regardless of the outcome of the case.[5] What NVRDC believes is that even though there are many aspects of the justice system that are ultimately out of a survivor’s control—including whether or not the case against their assailant will be brought to trial—providing comprehensive supportive services for victims will reduce the likelihood of retraumatization and help survivors feel more empowered throughout the process, regardless of the outcome.

Survivor defined justice

Laurel describes receiving the decision from the prosecutor as one of the most hurtful things that she has ever experienced. When the doors to achieving justice through a criminal trial were closed to her, she created new openings for herself. She drew upon her frustrations with her own experience to tirelessly advocate for other survivors of sexual violence in the District. Thanks, in large part to her advocacy, in 2014 the DC Council enacted legislation that expanded the rights of sexual assault survivors in the District called the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Act Amendment (SAVRAA). Provisions of this legislation such as making SANE kit results available to victims, ensuring those results were returned in a timely manner, having the right to know the results of the exam, and requiring law enforcement to notify the survivor of when they are going to contact the accused assailant were included because of Laurel’s advocacy and the testimony she shared about her experiences following the assault.

Since SAVRAA went into effect in the fall of 2014, Laurel has served as a member of the DC SAVRAA Task Force (a multidisciplinary task force that convenes to address the issues that arose from the passage of SAVRAA) and has continued to advocate for greater transparency in criminal prosecutions and for stronger protections on behalf of survivors. Laurel was acknowledged for her efforts by the Office of Victims of Crime, a component of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, in 2015 when she was awarded the Crime Victims’ Rights Award. In honor of her legacy, NVRDC named the Laurel Advocacy Award after her, which recognizes a community partner who demonstrates a commitment to working closely with the community and with NVRDC to further the needs of those impacted by crime.

Looking back on these experiences, Laurel said, “This entire process has taught me that I am so much bigger than any fear that I’ve ever had. We don’t ask to be victims, but we do have the power to stand up for what we believe in.” Survivors across the country are standing up and advocating for changes in how institutions and systems respond to sexual assault. Moments like when Lady Gaga sang “Till It Happens to You” with 50 survivors standing with her on stage at the Oscars have served as a powerful microphone to amplify the voices of survivors like Laurel and countless others. NVRDC looks forward to the day that their services for victims of sexual assault aren’t needed anymore. But until the day comes when sexual violence in all its forms is eradicated, NVRDC is honored to work with survivors like Laurel and hundreds of others in working together to achieve what justice looks like to them.

Get Help

If you are in the District of Columbia and experienced a sexual assault, please call the DC SANE Hotline at 800-641-4028. If you have been the victim of a crime in DC and would like to speak with an advocate about case management and legal advocacy, you can visit www.nvrdc.org or call 202-742-1727.

If you live or were assaulted somewhere other than the District of Columbia, you can contact RAINN by calling 800-656-4673 or connect with their online hotline here.

 

[1] Personally identifying details about Laurel’s case have been left out to protect her privacy. This story is used with her permission.

[2] RAINN, Reporting rates, https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates.

[3] While NVRDC supports however victims/survivors choose to identify themselves and their experiences, as an organization that provides legal representation, uses “victim” in the title as it is a legal term that provides survivors/victims with specific rights under laws such as the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. As seen in this article, NVRDC often uses both the terms victim and survivor to describe individuals who have been impacted by crime.

[4] RAINN, Effects of rape, https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims.

[5] Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, Vision 21 Report, http://ovc.ncjrs.gov/vision21/pdfs/Vision21_Report.pdf