Last week, Van Smith, who reports for City Paper (owned by the Baltimore Sun), authored an article about a 14-year-old child being raped. He included grisly details from charging documents that this child shared in the perceived safety of a forensic interview. He included her age, mother's full name, father's full name, and the county in which she lives. When challenged about the integrity of publicly outing a 14-year-old rape victim, Smith and his editor, Evan Serpick, had the gall to say "we didn't print her name"-as if we do not live in an era of the Internet, where her name could easily be obtained with the details provided.
It is important to note the fact that the alleged perpetrator in this case is a City Paper photographer. Now, maybe City Paper felt it had to report on the story so they wouldn't appear biased because the accused is on their staff, but there are ways-used by respectable journalists every day-to report on sex crimes, while truly protecting the identity of the victim. However, that did not happen in this case. If the intention was to shake up, expose and embarrass a child victim who will soon testify at trial about her victimization, put the accused in the best light possible, and attempt to put doubt in potential jurors' minds, then the mission was accomplished.
In Baltimore, we have all been called to operate from a victim-centered approach that aims to restore and make victims of sexual violence whole. This renewed focus came about in 2010, when Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton wrote a series of articles that uncovered the fact that the Baltimore Police Department was leading the nation in "unfounding" over 30 percent of rapes reported every year. While difficult for the department, Fenton's investigative reporting initiated a series of important reforms in investigation and the treatment of victims that continue today.
As a result of these findings, much was done to correct the process for handling sexual assault cases. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit, command was changed, the standard operating procedures were improved, advocates were incorporated into the criminal justice response for the first time, ongoing case review was instituted to include outside Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) partners, and I was hired as the SART Coordinator.
Quite frankly, I've often thanked Fenton for bringing attention to the way rape victims were treated. It was the best of what reporting can do for the public and for social justice. Last week, with Van Smith's article, we saw the worst.
The Baltimore SART consists of dedicated individuals from the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, the Baltimore Police Department, Mercy Medical Center, TurnAround, Inc., the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the University of Maryland Children's Hospital, and the Baltimore Police Laboratory. What Van Smith did last week in the free and widely distributed City Paper was unacceptable. It undermines all of the work that this dedicated group does each day to ensure victims are treated with respect and dignity, especially those who are children, and to encourage them to come forward to report what is already the most underreported crime.
And, by the way, it's not true that "false allegations in cases such as this are not unusual," as Smith quoted the suspect's attorney as saying. If you're going to quote something said as a fact, you should fact check. Sexual abuse and assaults are falsely reported at the same rate as other crimes, ranging from two to 10 percent.
I, and many other members of the Baltimore City SART, have made phone calls to Editor Evan Serpick to express our deep concern about this article, but none have been returned. So, we use this age-old format to ask that City Paper take down this damaging article from their website.
There must be accountability for such callous disregard to the emotional and physical well-being of a child, not to mention for the interference of a pending criminal trial and the endangerment of trial witnesses. Sexual abuse victims deserve an apology from City Paper. Please make it clear to them and your readership that this was a grave lapse in judgment and that it will never happen again.