Coordinator will oversee Baltimore sex assault investigation reforms

Continuing reforms to Baltimore's response to sexual assaults will be steered by a full-time coordinator who for the past six years has overseen residential programs at Howard County's domestic violence center.

Heather Brantner began Monday as coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team, a committee of police, prosecutors, medical providers and women's advocates given new purpose after The Baltimore Sun reported last year that the city for years led the country in the percentage of rape cases deemed "unfounded" by detectives.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit that found more than half of the cases investigated over a 20-month period had been misclassified. Officials also identified several other areas for improvement, which Brantner will manage in the newly created position.

Sexual assault and domestic violence "are often intertwined, and I think that coming from a victim-centered approach, I can bring a lot from those past experiences," Brantner said.

"The group has a significant agenda," said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice. "There has been some frustration that they haven't been able to move things as forward as they want to, and having a dedicated person whose job it is to make that happen is critical to the success of SART."

Immediately after The Sun published its findings — which included a startling number of cases where police had failed to even take a report — police instituted new policies that required all sexual assault reports to be referred to detectives for review.

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III also selected a new commander for the sex offense unit, and the city has sent detectives to training and obtained grant money to beef up investigations. A U.S. Senate subcommittee convened a hearing on the topic.

Reported rapes in Baltimore had been on the decline for years, dropping at a much faster rate than the national average as reports deemed "unfounded" — meaning false or baseless — had increased.

Before the article, rape reports declined by 15 percent through the first half of 2010, compared with the first six months of the previous year. But 2010 ended with reported rapes up more than 30 percent over the preceding year after changes were implemented.

Among the objectives still on the table: Officials are looking at case-management software that would allow every agency involved with the response to sexual assaults to have access the status of a case. Goldstein said the purpose is to ensure "everybody is accountable to everybody."

They also want to develop a public awareness campaign to encourage victims to come forward, in part over fears that the way the department handled claims of sexual assault might have further discouraged victims from coming forward.

"Sexual assault victims already underreport, and that just added to the likelihood," said Rosalyn Branson, executive director of TurnAround Inc., a program for women that is a part of the response team. "We need them to know not only that they can [come forward], but put out information about what will happen when they do."

Brantner, whose salary is funded by a grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, will work out of Goldstein's office.

In a biography provided by the mayor's office, officials said Brantner has worked as the residential director at the domestic violence center in Howard County and has experience helping organizations implement protocols for responding to domestic violence and sexual assaults. She also formed and chaired a campuswide sexual violence response team while at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2002.

Brantner said she has a master's degree in counseling and teaches about sexual assault at Anne Arundel Community College.

"She's smart, and she understands the work," Branson said.

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