While most victims of sexual assaults never come forward, those who do often face a long, difficult struggle to obtain justice.
Often, they wait for years before they can even take the stand — and many more years to recover psychologically.
“The trauma of reliving the criminal conduct through police interviews, trial preparation and then testimony at trial is a harsh reality for victims in the prosecution of sex offenses,” said Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores.
“No prosecutor wants to put a victim of a sex crime through the trauma of reliving what happened before a jury of strangers and in the presence of the defendant.
“However, it amazes us how strong victims can be, no matter what age, when they stand up to a defendant in court.”
Having more victims step forward is a constant concern for police and the county attorney’s office. When they do, everyone in the criminal justice system must encourage and support them, she said.
“Victims need to know that they will be heard when they do report and that law enforcement will do their best to protect them.”
And while awareness of sexual violence has increased along with services for sexual assault victims, many victims of rape and assault still do not tell anyone.
“This means they not only don’t tell law enforcement and prosecutors, but they do not tell family, teachers, counselors or friends,” Flores said. “As a result, they do not get the help they need.”
Victims often report that the following feelings prevent them from speaking up:
• Shock and numbness wondering what to do and who to tell.
• Shame and humiliation from the physical violation.
• Fear and intimidation the abuser will hurt them or their family.
• Anger at both the perpetrator and the world.
• A dirtiness that will never go away with a shower.
• Guilt that the assault was their fault.
• Powerlessness that they have no control over their life or body.
• And distrust of everything and everyone.
When a Payson teen was assaulted at school several years ago, she says every emotion ran through her body.
Afterwards, she struggled with her decision to report.
No one but her family believed her and everyone at school shunned her.
Humiliated and afraid, she dropped out of school. However, thanks to her family’s support, she reported the incident and carried through with the case until the abuser pled guilty.
It took counseling and a little martial arts training for the girl to recover her sense of self, but looking back now, the teen says she is proud of where she has come.
For victims who don’t take the first step and report, there is little relief and even less anyone can do to help.
“As prosecutors through our victim advocate office, we try to help victims by encouraging and empowering them to seek help whether it is medical treatment, counseling and reporting to police,” Flores said.
“Once reported and charged, we can provide advocacy and encourage victims to participate in the criminal justice system so they are empowered in protecting themselves and others.”
In Arizona, a victim of a crime has certain rights.
The Gila County Attorney’s Office employs several victim advocates who ensure a victim asserts their rights at all stages of prosecution.
A victim advocate is the most accessible contact a victim has in the criminal justice system.
Advocates strive to minimize emotional and secondary trauma. The Gila County Attorney Victim Services Division does so by providing several levels of service, including:
• Rights — Advocates provide education on rights and how to assert them.
• Referrals for mental health counseling — Advocates keep information on mental health services and support groups, including free or low-cost services covered by victim compensation.
• Safety — Fear prevents many victims from reporting the crime, both fear of the system and fear their abuser will retaliate.
Flores said a safety plan, order of protection and shelter placement can keep the victim safe from such retaliation.
An advocate can provide both information and emotional support.
“Victims benefit from telling their story to someone who is compassionate and understands the issues,” she said. “This promotes healing.”
Advocates also help victims prepare an impact statement, which empowers victims to tell their side of what happened and how it has forever changed their life.
Once a case is moved from the police department to the county attorney’s office for charging, prosecutors and advocates keep the witness and victims informed every step of the way.
A victim has the right to meet with prosecutors and voice her view on criminal prosecution, dismissal or plea negotiations; however, she does not have authority to direct prosecution of the case.
If the defendant is convicted, a victim has the right to speak before sentencing.
Throughout the process, victims are kept informed to assure that the abuse doesn’t continue beyond the event.