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EVAWI > Resources > Forensic Compliance > FAQs > Purpose
Forensic Compliance Frequently Asked Questions

Note: The information on this website is designed to: (a) communicate the requirements of the Violence Against Women Act (as reauthorized in 2005 and 2013), and (b) offer recommended practices for implementation. The goal is to highlight examples of communities striving to achieve a higher standard of the “spirit of the law,” rather than simply meeting the “letter of the law” for VAWA forensic compliance.  It is critically important that readers consult state laws and regulations, as well as local policies and protocols, because they may have additional requirements beyond those included in VAWA 2005 and VAWA 2013. For more information specific to your state or territory, contact the STOP Grant Administrator or coalition of advocacy organizations providing services for sexual assault victims.  A listing is available from the website for the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice.

Q What is the Purpose of Forensic Compliance?
A What is the Purpose of Forensic Compliance?

Increase Victim Access to Prompt Medical Forensic Care


There are several reasons why VAWA 2005 imposed forensic compliance mandates. One purpose is to increase sexual assault victims’ access to medical care and forensic evidence collection in the aftermath of an assault – at the point when medical care is most healing and certain forms of biological and physical evidence are more likely to be present for collection and documentation. Victim advocates recount many crisis calls where victims express fear of injury, pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STls), but are deterred from seeking medical care because these fears are outweighed by the fear of speaking with law enforcement or reporting the crime. VAWA 2005 recognizes that victims should not face barriers to seeking critical medical care following an assault.

Prior to VAWA 2005 forensic compliance mandates taking effect on January 5, 2009, some states required law enforcement to first authorize the victim's medical forensic exam - a policy that deterred many victims from seeking medical care or forensic evidence collection. Now, by ensuring that victims of sexual assault have access to the medical forensic examination without talking with law enforcement (unless they choose to do so) some victims will receive medical care and forensic evidence collection that they may not have otherwise sought.

Prompt medical care benefits victims by providing treatment and options that ensure better physical and mental health in the future. Access to prompt medical care may reduce the number of significant health consequences following the sexual assault, like unwanted pregnancy or STls. Prompt medical care may also decrease chronic health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, eating disorders, alcohol and substance abuse and pelvic pain suffered by victims.1

In addition, prompt forensic evidence collection increases the chance that probative evidence will be collected and documented; this evidence may be essential to an investigation and criminal prosecution, if the victim chooses to convert the case to a standard report in the future.

1 For an overview of chronic health conditions that may complicate a victim's short and long-term mental and physical health, see the document published by the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault entitled, By the Numbers, Emotional and Physical Effects of Sexual Assault. In addition, Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D. has conducted numerous research studies on the chronic health consequences of sexual assault and how medical screening and other interventions can thwart the development of these chronic conditions. Many of Dr. Campbell's research studies are available online, including two articles that were consulted for this document: (1) Campbell, R., Lichty, L.F., Sturza, M.L., & Raja, S. (2006). The gynecological health impact of sexual assault. Research in Nursing & Health, Vol. 29, p. 399-413 and (2) Campbell, R., Sefl, T. & Ahrens, C.E. (2003). The physical health consequences of rape: Assessing survivors’ somatic symptoms.  Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, p. 90-104.

2 Obtaining "justice" means different things to different victims. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis to pursue forms of justice besides the traditional notion that justice must equal jail or prison time for the offender. For more information about the civil legal approach to ensure victim rights and healing (sometimes characterized by the phrase, "justice is more than jail"), see Jessica E. Mindlin & Susan H. Vickers, Eds., (2008). Beyond the Criminal Justice System: Using the Law to Improve the Lives of Sexual Assault Victims, A Practice Guide for Attorneys and Advocates. Published by the National Victims’ Rights Law Center and available at http://www.victimrights.org/

3 Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice (NCJ 182369); Frazier, P., Candell, S., Arikian, N., & Tofteland, A. (1994). Rape survivors and the legal system. In M. Costanzo & S. Oskamp (Eds.), Violence and the Law (pp. 135-158). Newbury Park, CA: Sage; Kilpatrick, D. G., Edmunds, C. N. & Seymour, A. E. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA: National Crime Victims Center; Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., Conoscenti, M. A., & McCauley, J. (2007). Drug-Facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study. Washington DC: National Institute of Justice (NCJ 219181); Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (2000). Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice (NCJ 183781).

4 Sarah E. Ullman (2010). Talking About Sexual Assault: Society's Response to Victims. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Increase Victim Access to Justice

Another purpose of VAWA 2005 is to increase the reporting of sexual assault cases to law enforcement and ultimately increase victim access to justice.2 Research studies show that 80-95% of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement,3 so it is clear that sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes in our nation.

There are many logical reasons why victims may initially hesitate to report the assault to law enforcement.4 Some victims think that reporting the crime to law enforcement will be fruitless because they will not be believed. Other victims do not want to believe, or do not recognize, that they have been the victim of a crime. Some victims blame themselves for the assault, and spend time trying to characterize what behavior led to the assault, hoping to avoid such behavior in the future. Many victims are terrified that the assailant will further hurt them or a family member if a law enforcement investigation is pursued. Moreover, many victims are painfully aware of society's doubt or blame of victims in well-publicized cases. Some victims may have outstanding warrants or may have been engaged in illegal behavior at the time of the assault; facts which may cause them to hesitate to connect with law enforcement. Finally, numerous research studies show how trauma can impact the brain and complicate a victim's ability to recall, organize and communicate memories. Therefore, the effect of trauma on the brain can also make a victim's decision to report the assault to law enforcement extremely difficult in the days and months after an assault

While few victims report the assault to law enforcement, many victims disclose the assault to someone else in their lives. Research shows that victim disclosure is usually not a one-time, all-or nothing event.4 Thus, victim disclosure should be viewed as more of a process than an event with victims testing listeners with bits of information and gauging the listener for a supportive response. When victims take a courageous step to disclose the sexual assault to a healthcare professional, they should be rewarded with compassion and concern, not pressure to report the assault to law enforcement. If victims feel believed and supported the first time they disclose the assault, they will most likely feel more empowered to tell others, and may decide to engage law enforcement at some point in the future.

While research shows that victim disclosure is often healing, the legal system was not designed to promote healing.4 The process of reporting the assault law enforcement, participating in the investigation and any subsequent criminal case is often traumatic for victims and may not ultimately increase victim healing. While victims should not be discouraged from reporting the assault to law enforcement, VAWA 2005 requires states to implement special processes that acknowledge and counteract some of the intense pressures faced by sexual assault victims. By eliminating the requirement that victims first speak with law enforcement before receiving the medical forensic exam, one immediate pressure has been eliminated. Although some victims will never decide to report the assault to law enforcement, VAWA 2005 is clear that those individuals must still have access to a medical forensic exam.

Obtaining "justice" means different things to different victims. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis to pursue forms of justice besides the traditional notion that justice must equal jail or prison time for the offender. For more information about the civil legal approach to ensure victim rights and healing (sometimes characterized by the phrase, "justice is more than jail"), see Jessica E. Mindlin & Susan H. Vickers, Eds., (2008 Beyond the Criminal Justice System: Using the Law to Improve the Lives of Sexual Assault Victims, A Practice Guide for Attorneys and Advocates.  Published by the National Victims’ Rights Law Center and available at http://www.victimrights.org/

Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice (NCJ 182369); Frazier, P., Candell, S., Arikian, N., & Tofteland, A. (1994). Rape survivors and the legal system. In M. Costanzo & S. Oskamp (Eds.), Violence and the Law (pp. 135-158). Newbury Park, CA: Sage; Kilpatrick, D. G., Edmunds, C. N. & Seymour, A. E. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA:  National Crime Victims Center; Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., Conoscenti, M. A., & McCauley, J. (2007). Drug-Facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study. Washington DC: National Institute of Justice (NCJ 219181); Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (2000). Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey.  Washington, DC:  U.S. Department of Justice (NCJ 183781).

Sarah E. Ullman (2010). Talking About Sexual Assault: Society's Response to Victims. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Improve Criminal Justice Outcomes

Thus, the VAWA 2005 forensic compliance mandates were designed to spark a significant change in how formal systems like healthcare and the criminal justice system respond to sexual assault. Jurisdictions should adapt or create victim-centered policies that take into account the reality of how few victims disclose to authorities and encourage victims to report in a way that may be more comfortable for them. By doing that, jurisdictions may ultimately see an increase in reports made to law enforcement. Furthermore, by allowing victims who are unsure about reporting access to the medical forensic examination, such evidence will be available in the future if and when that victim chooses to pursue an investigation. The presence of physical evidence capable of being analyzed for DNA or toxicology – along with the documentation of physical injury - often leads to better prosecution outcomes.6  An increase in reports made to law enforcement and more successful prosecutions may mean safer communities for us all. After all, we cannot hold offenders accountable without first hearing from victims. However, this will only occur if the process of reporting the assault to law enforcement is made more comfortable for victims now. This document is intended to assist your jurisdiction in the creation and implementation of victim-centered policies that may achieve these results.

5 For an overview of relevant research studies on how the body and mind respond to trauma in the context of sexual assault, see Kaarin Long, Caroline Palmer & Sara G. Thome (2010, August). A distinction without a difference: Why the Minnesota Supreme Court should overrule its precedent precluding the admission of helpful expert testimony in adult-victim sexual assault cases. Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy, Vol. 31, No. 2, p. 569-656. Available at http://www.mncasa.org/Documents/index 175 2534215409.pdf or by contacting the Sexual Violence Justice Institute at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault at svji@mncasa.org.

6 See, for example Hon. Donald E. Shelton, Gregg Barak, & Young S. Kim & Gregg Barak (2007). A study of juror expectations and demands concerning scientific evidence: Does the “CSI Effect” exist? Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, Vol. 9, No. 2, p. 331-368. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/donald_shelton/5.
This project is supported by Grant No. 2013-TA-AX-K045 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
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