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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Study calls for greater public awareness of sexual assault

CONCORD – Public misperceptions about rape make criminal prosecution of sexual assault a near impossibility.

Victims have to overcome assumptions about their credibility and the usual lack of forensic evidence when reporting a criminal complaint.

That finding and several other assessments of the criminal justice system highlight a study released Monday about sexual assault of adult women in New Hampshire.

Comprised of interviews with police officers, prosecutors, victim advocates and nurses, the study examined how those professionals handle sexual assault cases. The findings led the study’s authors to call for greater public awareness of sexual assault and a more coordinated response that best serves victims.

“Deep inside, people still think, ‘What did she do wrong to be sexually assaulted?’” said Grace Mattern, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

People tend to think of rape only as a surprise, knife-point assault on a morally upright woman, the study said. But in reality, most sexual assaults were committed by men known to the victim, the study said.

Even people who express a full understanding of rape later reveal they don’t truly recognize sexual assault when they ask why a victim wore certain clothing or question her credibility because she had a few drinks before the crime, Mattern said.

“It’s never the victim’s fault, regardless of how much she drank, what she wore or what celebrity’s house she went to late at night,” she said. Regardless of circumstance, nonconsensual sex is assault, she added.

Mattern, who helped conduct the study, said that not only does the general public need to change its perception of sexual assault but police officers and prosecutors also need to reshape their attitudes.

Police officers tend to consider sexual assault claims to be false, and place the onus on victims to prove they were victimized, Mattern said.

Prosecutors hesitate to forward cases because they believe they don’t have enough forensic evidence, and think they can’t convince jurors a crime was committed, she said. (More often than not, physical evidence is lacking, and if there is any, the alleged perpetrator will claim that sex was consensual, Mattern said.)

The perspectives of those in law enforcement illustrate how most people who handle sexual assault cases consider the criminal justice system broken. Victim advocates, medical professionals and law enforcement all agree that a new approach is needed, the study said.

The study – conducted by 11 researchers for the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence – found that only 13 of 344 alleged perpetrators of sexual assault were known to be convicted or had entered a guilty plea in 2006, the most recent year statewide information was available.

Of the 344 assaults, 80 offenders were charged, 193 cases were closed or suspended and 71 had unknown outcomes.

The study also found that the collection of data on sexual assault needs marked improvement. New Hampshire lacks a consistent means of tracking adult female sex assault cases through the criminal justice system, the report said.

The chief concern of the report’s authors was that people treat sexual assault victims differently than they do the victims of other crimes.

It is not a law for a victim to report a sexual assault, so police and prosecutors are handling far fewer cases than they should, said Kathy Kimball, a former state police officer who is now leading a state effort to improve the handling of assaults.

Experts know there is a disparity because crisis centers handle more sexual assault reports than law enforcement does, Kimball said.

Because they’re not compelled by law, victims are reluctant to come forward because of the many hurdles they face, she said.

“There can be great fear, and a lot of coercion” by the perpetrator, Kimball said. “There’s a lot of shame. Victims blame themselves for what happened. But they still need help.”

Once attitudes change about sexual assault, than prosecutions will occur more frequently, Kimball and Mattern said.

The campaign to change public perception will take time, but it’s already starting among those who handle assault cases, Mattern said.

With state funding, Kimball has helped organize sexual assault resource teams, or SARTs, in the state’s 10 counties.

Police, prosecutors, advocates and nurses are sharing experiences and ideas in each county with the goal of improving their response to sexual assault reports, she said.

They will come to realize that departments and agencies need to be less territorial and instead work together to recognize what helps a victim in each case, Kimball said.

The SARTs will also share new insight and approaches with their colleagues, exponentially improving the systematic handling of sexual assault cases, Mattern said.

The full report can be read on the website of New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence:

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or