April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Victims have a Voice in the Process
By Kelly Callihan, Esq., PDAA Counsel for Policy and External Relations
It takes a lot of courage for victims to report sexual violence.
That is why Pennsylvania’s district attorneys are committed to helping sexual assault victims seek justice in the legal system while, at the same time, working with a team of health professionals and victim advocates to ensure their health and safety.
Police and prosecutors need evidence to identify perpetrators and hold them accountable. Health professionals conduct sexual assault forensic examinations, commonly referred to as “rape kits,” to collect the evidence needed in court. Rape crisis center counselors and advocates provide victims with information, options, and support throughout the process. The goal of this victim-centered, team approach is to secure the necessary evidence without adding further distress to the victim.
Victims have a voice in the process.
Victims decide whether to involve the police at this stage. They have the right to consult with a victim advocate for support. They are never charged for the exams. They have the right to have the kits tested and preserved. And they can protect their identities in medical records.
The district attorneys of Pennsylvania partner with local medical providers that employ trained and/or certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) to provide compassionate medical examinations of sexual assault victims. These specially trained forensic nurses collect crucial evidence that prosecutors will use if the victim chooses to proceed with an investigation.
Victim safety, both mentally and physically, is the top priority for the team.
One challenge is that if a potential suspect is an intimate partner, he or she may be present at the facility with the victim who is seeking help. In those cases, nurse examiners and victim advocates will employ sensitive tactics to shield the victim for the exam and ensure privacy.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual assault is serious and widespread problem in our communities. Research shows that many victims choose not to report crimes of sexual violence. It is important for victims to know that, if they do come forward, they will be treated with compassion, respect, and understanding and they are not alone. Help is available.
If you have been sexually assaulted, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association urges you to seek help. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. You may also contact the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape helpline at 1-888-772-7227 to talk with a counselor who can provide free, confidential counseling and information.
Kelly Callihan, Esq., is a career prosecutor and former district attorney who spent 28 years seeking justice for victims. During her career, Callihan prosecuted countless child abuse cases, felony sexual assaults and violent crimes in both juvenile and adults courts. She also spearheaded the creation of programs and task forces designed to enhance services for victims in the criminal justice system.