The Sun investigation into police "unfounding" of rape cases in the city has brought an important issue to the forefront. As a pediatrician, I became aware of this practice two years ago when I received a call from the mother of a 14-year-old patient who wanted to bring her daughter to see me for a pregnancy test. Two weeks earlier, her daughter had been taken to an emergency department after she reported being forced to have intercourse by another teenager.
When the police arrived after being called by physicians, the patient was questioned and told that her case was not rape because she did not fight back enough. The police left after unfounding her case, and she was discharged home without further investigation. Her mother was instructed only to obtain a pregnancy test in two weeks for the girl, who was not pregnant.
My patient is just one of thousands of teens and adults who have experienced sexual assault. Nearly one out of every 10 high school students in Baltimore City report that they have been physically forced to have sex. Too often, youth sexual violence occurs in the context of a dating or intimate partner relationship. According to my colleague, Kantahyanee Murray, we should be particularly concerned about sexual violence prevention and treatment among teens. Research suggests that victims of intimate partner violence may carry patterns of violence into future relationships. Victims of sexual assault may also face serious consequences including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. These feelings are compounded by the poor treatment victims may be subjected to upon reporting their assault to health care professionals and police officers.
What many may not know is that sexual assault victims have been afforded protection from this form of revictimization by a provision in the reauthorization of the National Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which went into effect in January 2009. Also known as the "Jane Doe Law," this provision requires that women and men 13 and older who are sexually assaulted have the right to have evidence collected and to receive care in specialized sexual assault centers, regardless of their decision to have police involved at the time (and, therefore, regardless of any police officer's opinion of the facts of the report). Incidents involving children 12 and younger and generally are treated as child abuse cases.
The Jane Doe Law provides free access to services to collect evidence using a sexual assault evidence collection kit and represents a major evolution in providing victims of sexual assault expanded avenues to achieve justice. Most significantly, making a police report before evidence is collected is no longer necessary. In fact, results of sexual assault evidence collection kits are kept on file anonymously, even if the victim never makes a police report.
In Baltimore, Mercy Hospital is the health facility responsible for conducting Jane Doe evidence collection, and its Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) program provides comprehensive medical care to sexual assault victims, who can have the evidence collection completed at Mercy Hospital free of charge. If a sexual assault victim is seen in an emergency department at another city hospital, free transportation to Mercy will be provided.
Evidence collection is only one piece of the care available to sexual assault victims. A specially trained SAFE staff will also provide recommended medical services and link victims to mental health services. SAFE programs are available throughout Maryland at designated hospitals.
Jane Doe removes the pressure of having to decide whether to file police charges before collecting evidence. Cases like the one we described demonstrate how important it is that the public and medical and mental health providers are aware of Jane Doe. Providers should develop procedures to facilitate quick and easy access to the services available at Mercy or other SAFE programs for any victim who is seen in their offices or emergency departments. Clinicians including social workers and psychologists working in school-based settings must also develop protocols to ease students' access.
City leaders should be applauded for establishing a victim hotline to address cases of rape or sexual assault not fully investigated by police. The nonprofit fielding these calls has already been involved in providing access to SAFE services, but many other potential helpers could be better informed. An important next step is to increase awareness of the Jane Doe services available to city residents. Indeed, we must all work to make sure that providers and police officers are following this law so that the next teen or adult sexual assault victim is not subjected to unnecessary retraumatization.
Dr. Krishna Upadhya (email@example.com) is an adolescent medicine physician. Contributing to this article is Kantahyanee Murray, PhD, (firstname.lastname@example.org), a research assistant professor focusing on youth violence prevention at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.