In 1983 when I first assumed the duties as Strafford County Attorney very few sexual assault and child abuse cases were reported, investigated, or prosecuted.
There were many reasons for this: often victims were actively discouraged from reporting because of how elements within the system treated victims who came forward. This included first responders, family members, friends, law enforcement, prosecutors, the courts, medical personnel, and virtually everyone a victim had to deal with in order to seek justice.
In some counties even some victim support and rape crisis centers discouraged reporting because of obstacles victims encountered in the criminal justice system. What obstacles? Here are just a few:
• The myth that rape is about sex
• Victims were told they would not be believed
• They were subjected to multiple interviews and required to re-live their trauma over and over again by ill informed and untrained people — frequently as many as 5 or 6 interviews/statements were obtained before the case would come to the attention of a prosecutor
• Questions about the victims clothing, appearance, sexual history were commonplace
• Accusatory tones and dismissive attitudes were the norm
• Prosecutors often declined prosecution to “spare the victim of the trauma of testifying at trial,” especially in cases without “corroborating” evidence despite the fact that in New Hampshire the law did not require any corroboration of a victim’s testimony
• If a prosecution was pursued, the victim was rarely informed about the process and her right to be present at hearings such as: bail review, evidentiary challenges, pretrial conferences, etc.
As a young prosecutor it became increasingly apparent to me that how you were treated and the likely success of your case depended almost entirely on WHERE your assault took place and who was involved in the reporting, investigating and prosecuting your case. I knew I needed to educate myself, my staff, and all who were involved in sexual assault cases from reporting through sentencing and beyond.
I did not come to this realization on my own. I was fortunate to meet and be inspired by extraordinary women who were the pioneers in New Hampshire’s efforts to change the system’s response to sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence: Sandra Matheson, New Hampshire’s first statewide Victim Assistance Director, NH Attorney General’s Office; Catherine McNaughton, first county Victim Assistance Director, Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office; Barry MacMichael (1947-2004), the Director and Co-Director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence from 1980 to 1997; Grace Mattern, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Eve Goodman, SHARPP, Marty Sink, President & CEO of CASA, Diane Stradling, former Executive Director of SASS and Kathy Beebe, Executive Director of SASS(now HAVEN); Dalia Vidunas, first Strafford County Victim Assistance Director, Susan Whitford, Strafford County Victim Assistance Coordinator and Director, Nancy Harris, Strafford County Victim Assistance Director.
We began by instituting a prosecution based Victim Assistance Program whose mission was to:
• Provide a supportive non-threatening environment that encouraged victims to come forward and report incidents of rape, sexual assault and child abuse;
• Increase the number of successful prosecutions of sexual assault cases in Strafford County;
• Identify systemic impediments that discouraged reporting, and seek pro-active legislative initiatives that empowered victims and established rights for victims of sexual assault.
The initial interview: The first thing we did was to begin videotaping the initial interview of victims. Our trained victim assistance staff conducted these interviews. Law enforcement and prosecutors were able to view the interviews in real time via closed circuit monitors, and could suggest questions to the interviewer as needed.
No other interviews were done; victims were not subjected to repeated interviews, questioning, depositions, etc. An audio recording was made simultaneously and a copy was provided to the defense as part of discovery, thus important constitutional rights of defendant’s were protected without re-traumatizing the victim.
Police departments were required to contact victim support organizations (SASS, SHARPP) upon first report so victims would have access to their services if desired from the very beginning.
Victim assistance staff kept victims informed of every hearing or event as a case progressed through the system. Prosecutors met early with the victims and stayed with the case from initiation to post-sentencing.
As these investigatory procedures were put in place I began teaching and speaking before groups of stakeholders, carrying around with me a cast iron skillet to drive home the message that sexual assault was not about sex; any more than being hit on the head with a frying pan was about cooking! We spread the message to law enforcement, judges, educators, nurses, students, the public and juries; these cases were not about sex, they were about power.
And our numbers began to reflect the changes we implemented. More and more victims were willing to come forward, more and more prosecutions were instituted and more and more conviction s obtained. At one point Strafford County had more perpetrators serving time in State Prison than any other county, not only as a percentage of our population but in raw numbers period.
Today the protocols we implemented in Strafford County in the ‘80’s are now standard throughout the State of New Hampshire. This is a legacy of which I am most proud.