After the Assault: A look at justice and healing for survivors of sexual violence

Published on
January 29, 2020

Often when journalists cover sexual assault, they focus on what happened: who did what, to whom, and the graphic details of an incident. The media pounces on public court cases, sentencing decisions and the debate over which acts were consensual and which were not. 

Rarely do we pause to look at the long-term mental and emotional impacts on the person who came forward about the assault. My USC Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund project will zero in on the toll sexual violence takes in the weeks and months after an attack, and how law enforcement, health professionals, advocates and loved ones can help victims and survivors find justice and healing. 

Data reporter Emily Zentner, project director jesikah maria ross and I have been in regular contact with victims and survivors of sexual assault in the Sacramento area. Several of them initially reached out to Capital Public Radio because they wanted to talk about the struggle of reassembling their lives after a traumatic incident. They say the path to healing is fraught with bureaucratic hurdles and repeated trauma, sometimes created by the people who are supposed to help them. 

After holding an initial community engagement convening with six survivors, we learned that their interactions with state agencies, law enforcement officers and even loved ones often make them feel dejected and unheard. They say months after filing reports about their assaults, officers closed their cases without warning or continued the investigations with little follow-up, leaving them feeling frustrated and disenfranchised. 

Through a second community engagement convening with law enforcement officers, rape crisis counselors, medical providers and district attorneys, we learned that there are hold-ups and complications at many steps of the reporting process, and that these cases are notoriously hard to prosecute. Stakeholders acknowledged that more can be done to improve outcomes for victims and survivors, and committed to helping us produce journalism that moves the conversation forward.

This will not just be a story about process and protocol. It will delve into the physical and mental health impacts of assault, and we’ll strive to show the audience what it looks, feels and sounds like to survive sexual violence. Many of the survivors we’re speaking to shared deeply personal and moving details about the ways in which these events changed their lives, from struggling to eat due to anxiety to being unable to shop in public without having a panic attack. They want to raise awareness about what sexual assault does to the psyche, and how that trauma changes the way they navigate the world. And they want their stories to make an impact — whether that’s educating boys early on about rape culture or giving loved ones resources to help them understand and navigate trauma. 

With this project, we plan to investigate where the breakdowns are happening in a survivor’s search for justice, and what law enforcement, advocates and the public can do to help them heal. 

We will use data to demonstrate the scope of the problem and point to solutions. Possible data points include the following information from the Sacramento Police Department, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, and the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office:

  • What percentage of sexual assault survivors report their cases to law enforcement?

  • How many sexual assault cases do law enforcement agencies receive per year?

  • What percentage of survivors were offered medical exams when they reported?

  • What percentage of sexual assault cases are cleared via conviction or plea bargain, compared with other types of assault? Are there racial differences in clearance rates?

  • How many hours of training do law enforcement officers have on sex assault versus other types of crime?

Our team is setting out to create journalism that has an impact. What that impact is, and how our journalism achieves it, will be largely shaped by the communities we are covering. 

Some of the desired impacts that survivors, advocates and law enforcement shared with us early in the planning process include:

  • Greater public understanding of the process of reporting assault, including where the legal hold-ups are that make it difficult to move some cases forward. 

  • A place for victims and survivors to tell their stories.

  • Increased public education about sexual assault.

  • A way to reduce shame and encourage more survivors to report.

  • More law enforcement training on sexual assault and trauma-informed advocates in police departments.

  • More public awareness about the challenges of investigating and persecuting sexual assault cases.

The team at Capital Public Radio is committed to covering this issue in a sensitive, balanced and accurate way. We hope that the journalism we produce with the Center for Health Journalism will change the conversation around sexual assault in a way that fosters healing and better supports survivors seeking justice through law enforcement. We look forward to the chance to dig into this pervasive issue.