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Guide Helps Police Notify Victims When Sex Assault Evidence Kits Are Processed

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social work

AUSTIN, Texas — Many communities and police departments across the country are clearing their caches of untested sexual assault evidence kits, but they face a challenging question: how best to notify the victims.

In some cases, when the sexual assault evidence kits are processed, investigations are reopened, and the sexual assault victim may be involved again. The ways in which victims are reengaged is critical to the victim’s well-being and to the investigation and potential prosecutions.

The Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin has responded to this national need by developing the first-ever community guide. The “Notification for Victims of Assault (NoVA): A Guide for Communities with Untested Sexual Assault Kits.”

“The scientific integrity and level of care we demand in the lab should be mirrored in the victim notification process,” said Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of IDVSA. “Victims of sexual assault have already been through one trauma. This resource will now provide communities with a victim-centered, trauma-informed, scientifically sound protocol to inform and engage victims.”

The new guide distills best practices and current science into an empirically based five-step process called the NoVA Change Process, which includes 13 tools to support the execution of each step. It provides a framework for confronting unique challenges and opportunities in a manner tailored to local realities and needs. These include:

  • Assessment strategies and tools to help determine readiness for change.
  • Lessons learned from communities in Houston, Memphis and Detroit.
  • Tools to acknowledge and strategize practical concerns such as budget constraints.

NoVA offers detailed examples and draws upon real-life case studies to assist communities in creating a collaborative, coordinated and multidisciplinary response to reengage victims after testing unrequested or untested sexual assault evidence kits. The new guide will help practitioners understand the critical components for victim-centered, trauma-informed notification, and how to apply them in their communities.

“Having access to this information and a guide like this would have been invaluable when I first started conducting sexual assault investigations back in 2004,” said Senior Police Officer Holly Whillock of the Houston Police Department. “My outlook would have been more victim-oriented those first couple of years. This guide will allow a new generation of investigators to understand these issues so they don’t have to learn the hard way.”

NoVA was developed based on the institute’s previous research with the Houston Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project. IDVSA researchers were members of the Houston SAK Action Research Project working group in 2011-2014 and were instrumental in developing Houston’s Victim Notification Protocol.

The kits preserve evidence, including DNA, from the body of a sexual assault victim. In the past several years, untested sexual assault evidence kits emerged as a significant criminal and social justice issue. When kits are untested, victims may not receive justice, and offenders may not be held accountable for their crimes. There are complex underlying reasons for the untested evidence. Some jurisdictions have begun to test this evidence, notify victims of results, and investigate and prosecute when possible.

NoVA’s focus is on untested and unrequested sex assault evidence kits; however, practitioners can also use the fundamental principles and many of the practices described in this guide for engaging victims on current cases and broader system-level responses, regardless of the age of the case.

The Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice funded this project.