Webinar presenter Victoria Riechers answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Working with Sexual Assault Victims: Strategies for Justice Professionals. Here are just a few of her responses.
Audience Question: What is your advice or input about law enforcement wearing body cameras in the medical forensic room?
Victoria Riechers: In terms of in a medical forensic room, I would first make sure to let the victim know you are wearing a body camera. Obviously, the law enforcement person should not be there during the exam and medical forensic process – they should wait outside and talk to them afterward. But they should definitely let the victim know why they are wearing a body-worn camera, what the purpose is, and whether you have control over turning it on or off. If you do have control, you could potentially ask the victim if they want it on or not. But I know most of the time, the law enforcement officers don’t have control when they are allowed to turn it on and off.
Audience Question: Is there a way to lessen any re-traumatization when I need to ask the individual to show me their injuries and to take photographs of them, especially injuries in sensitive areas – she goes on to say, I try to tell them all of what I am going to do and to tell them we’ll go at their pace, but I’m not really sure if that helps or not.
Victoria Riechers: I think it definitely sounds like you’re doing everything right. Keeping the victims as informed as possible, presenting everything in a sensitive way, using a sensitive tone of voice, and acknowledging that there can be potential discomfort are all really important and it sounds like you’re doing all of that. It is also important to make it clear to the victim that they can refuse any part of the medical forensic exam. Just because they agree to the exam doesn’t mean that they have to agree to every single part of it. It is important to always let them know that it’s their choice to do the different aspects of the exam. I think that’s very important too because the victim might feel more control over what’s happening to them.
Audience Question: We had one of our audience members write in and share some insights – I love it when Justice Clearing House Members do this. Joe shared: System and community-based advocates have different levels of confidentiality with survivors, we should all be explaining these to survivors before we begin talking with them. They do have the right to know if their conversation will not be held in confidence and when it might be disclosed to others. Any insights there?
Victoria Riechers: The level of confidentiality and privilege a community-based advocate and a systems-based advocates has is going to vary by state. In Arizona, both systems-based advocates and community-based advocates have privilege and their level of confidentiality is almost identical in Arizona. There are some limitations and in Arizona, we have two different statutes related to advocacy privilege. Again, it is very important to communicate the limitations to privilege the advocates have and this will vary by state.
Audience Question: Could you touch on asking about strangulation to assess safety and medical needs?
Victoria Riechers: So strangulation is definitely something that we would want to screen for in all sexual assault cases because we know that strangulation can be very serious and lead to death hours or days after someone experiences strangulation. I didn’t have this in the slide but we do have a guide on what screening for strangulation can look like and that is in the appendix of our Arizona Recommended Guidelines for a Coordinated Community Response to Adult Sexual Assault. I can see if I can email that pdf to Chris to share on the website.
Audience Question: How have you seen judges’ attitudes evolve over the years managing court cases involved in sexual assault. We talked about a lot of the difference – segments of the justice profession, we didn’t really touch on judges and their role. Are you finding the judges are understanding more of the challenges the victims’ testimony and being trauma-informed and memory recollection? What is your take on that?
Victoria Riechers: I feel like judges are often the hardest group to reach and to train on sexual assault. And often, one judge can be very different from another judge in terms of their understanding of sexual assault and trauma. I’m not sure if over the years that has changed. We just know that they are a very difficult group to train. Their schedules are so incredibly busy, that even when we try to set up trainings it can be a huge challenge just to get them in a room.
Audience Question: Are there any special considerations for victims with intellectual disabilities and mental health diagnosis – you and I know have spoken about having another webinar specifically around the disabled community. So, we’d love to hear your thought on that.
Victoria Riechers: Like you said, it’s really a topic for a whole other webinar. We know that often times services are siloed so we might have an organization that specializes in disability services and an organization that specializes in sexual assault services, let’s say. If the organizations aren’t communicating, they might not know how to respond to the intersection of disability and sexual assault. The disability organization might not know how to respond to sexual assault, and the sexual assault organization might not know how to respond to people with intellectual disabilities. I would really recommend further training for folks who are providing sexual assault services, as well as making sure to include disability organizations in sexual assault response teams. I don’t have any specific advice today, as the topic is so broad.
Audience Question: Victoria, knowing that you’ve interacted with a lot of victims over the years, what are some of the biggest mistakes that justice professionals make when interacting with those victims that you hear from the victims about?
Victoria Riechers: I think some of the biggest mistakes are asking those “why” questions like: “Why were you drinking?” Any kind of victim-blaming coming from first responders, whether they are advocates, law enforcement, or medical professionals, is always a problem because if someone’s being blamed for what happened, they’re probably not going to want to continue with the investigation. They’re not going to want to continue with those services. Another thing that we hear is first responders not believing the victim. Actually, research shows that the biggest myth first responders believe is that victims aren’t telling the truth, but research continually shows that victims very rarely lie about sexual assault. Only about 2-10% of reports are false reports. Another mistake is just being cold and unapproachable. Sometimes some justice professionals think that only the advocates need to have an empathetic response because they are the so-called “touchy-feely” ones. But we all need to have an empathetic response and make ourselves approachable, regardless of our role. One of my colleagues recommends to look in the mirror and try to make your face your “approachable face” with “soft eyes.” I would recommend working on that if that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to you. This kind of thing also doesn’t always come naturally to me but you can practice at it and get better at it.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of Working with Sexual Assault Victims: Strategies for Justice Professionals.