One of the most exciting projects led by EVAWI is the “Making a Difference” project, supported with generous funding by the William H. Donner Foundation. This innovative project was undertaken jointly with Canadian professionals, with coordinated funding provided by the Donner Canadian Foundation.
The stated purpose of the project is to "Make a Difference" by challenging the legal process in both the U.S. and Canada to more effectively prosecute sexual offenders. It is clear based on existing research that the criminal justice systems in the U.S. and Canada -- as in other countries -- are less likely to prosecute incidents of sexual assault if they do not resemble the stereotype of “real rape.” In other words, if they do not involve a stranger with a weapon, severe physical violence, and victim injuries. Sexual assault cases are also less likely to be prosecuted if the victim has consumed drugs or alcohol or otherwise engaged in behaviors that are viewed as high-risk. However, such characteristics are typical for most adult sexual assaults.
In fact, the research documents that most sexual assaults are committed by someone who is known to the victim, who does not use a weapon or severe physical violence, and who does not inflict visible injuries on the victim. Research also indicates that people with disabilities are at particular high risk of sexual victimization, as are victims from certain identifiable communities (e.g., Native American women, adolescents, women in the military).
Therefore, the most frequent type of sexual assault is typically treated with leniency, while atypical sexual assault perpetrators are the ones who are more likely to be held accountable for their crimes (i.e., those who are strangers, use a weapon and/or physically injure their victims).
The "Making a Difference" project was designed to address this problem, by facilitating reform in the U.S. and Canadian legal systems -- to challenge the status quo and more effectively prosecute adult and adolescent sexual assaults. In particular, EVAWI has dedicated resources and attention to ensure that girls and women with disabilities are included in all facets of our work.
Working Together .. Across Disciplines, Communities, and Countries
From its inception, project staff envisioned a strategy for "Making a Difference" by facilitating reform in the U.S. and Canadian legal systems to challenge the status quo. The vision was that multi-disciplinary teams from 8 U.S. communities and 8 Canadian communities would become partners in a joint effort to work together collaboratively and set new national standards in each country for effectively prosecuting sex offenders, particularly ones whose crimes do not fit the stereotype of sexual assault.
In Phase I of the project (September 2003 to December 2004), community teams joined together for a 3-day training conference (one hosted in each country). The training conferences were designed to provide an initial forum for participant communities to share strategies, highlight their challenges and successes, and coordinate their activities. More detailed information is available on the Making a Difference conference and the participating communities in both countries.
Grant funding was also awarded during Phase I for EVAWI to evaluate the success of the two conferences in achieving their stated objectives, and to carefully design the strategy for continued funding to support reform efforts in the 16 participating communities (8 in the U.S. and 8 in Canada). Detailed information is available both on the findings of the evaluation of the U.S. conference and the reform efforts that continue to be implemented in each of the 8 U.S. communities.
During this same time frame, parallel work was planned for the Canadian teams, with the Donner Canadian Foundation preparing to hire a coordinator for the Making a Difference Project in Canada. One of the first tasks for this project coordinator was to conduct a needs assessment in the 8 participating Canadian communities to determine the specific objectives and priorities for technical assistance to improve the prosecution of sexual assault. Once the project coordinator was hired for the Canadian MAD project, participants pursued their own path of important reform efforts, including training, technical assistance, research, and activism. These efforts are described at the website for the Canadian MAD project.
Phase II was conceptualized as supporting the project goals in an ongoing way, by providing various forms of technical assistance, including on-site training workshops, coordinated communication between the team members, and data collection efforts to document the success of reform efforts. This second phase was again supported with funding by the William H. Donner Foundation from February 2005 to January 2006. Coordinated logistical planning also took place in Canada, in communication with the Donner Canadian Foundation.
While Phase II of the project involved providing various forms of technical assistance to professionals in participating communities, the centerpiece of this phase may have been the ambitious data collection effort that agencies undertook, with centralized coordination by the staff of EVAWI. The power and utility of this data simply cannot be overstated. While prior research has reported findings based on similar kinds of data from individual agencies or disciplines, never before has any research project attempted to collect this level of detailed information from the entire spectrum of agencies involved in sexual assault response -- including law enforcement, prosecution, forensic medicine, advocacy, and victim services. With such data in hand, EVAWI will be able to provide a detailed picture of the basic characteristics of sexual assault in these 16 communities in two countries, as seen by various agencies (e.g., law enforcement, prosecution, forensic medicine, and victim advocacy).
For example, analysis of this data will allow us to better understand how many sexual assault victims report their crime to law enforcement, and how the characteristics of their assaults determine whether their case will proceed through the entire criminal justice system to prosecution and conviction. We will even be able to link this analysis with comparable detail on the number of sexual assault victims seeking help from advocacy and other victim service organizations, and whether the characteristics of their crimes are similar or different to those reported to law enforcement and subsequently processed through the criminal justice system. Detailed information is available on the data collection efforts, including the basic research design and the research materials that are available for use by any interested professionals.
Phase III funding was awarded by the William H. Donner Foundation, which supported project activities from February 2006 to January 2007. This support allowed the staff of EVAWI to provide ongoing technical assistance to the participant communities, including additional on-site training workshops. This third phase also allowed the communities in both countries to continue to collect detailed data on their sexual assault case loads, with centralized coordination by EVAWI.
With 6 months of funding for Phase IV of the Making a Difference (MAD) project in 2007, we accomplished the following objectives: (1) Cleaning and compiling data from the MAD project; (2) Designing a data analysis plan; (3) Consulting with multidisciplinary experts to assist with interpreting the findings and exploring the implications for research, policy, and practice; (4) Writing a manuscript draft for publication to disseminate the findings for policymakers and practitioners in the field, and; (5) Presenting findings at one conference for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.
Phase V: In February 2009, the William H. Donner Foundation provided funding to bring together a core group of participants in the MAD project for a Research and Reform Summit. This meeting took place in Austin, Texas in July, 2009. The purpose of the meeting was to review the data collection process and preliminary findings from the MAD project, both to assist in the analysis and interpretation of data, but also to chart a course for reforms guided by the knowledge gained from their participation in MAD.
During the Research and Reform Summit, MAD participants provided detailed information on the structure, function, and characteristics of their community response system. This information was then compiled by EVAWI staff into a summary document. They also updated information on the reform efforts they have undertaken in their communities. As a third objective, they broke into groups by discipline and carefully reviewed the Tracking Forms used for data collection during the MAD project. With an eye toward “lessons learned” from the process, they made a number of suggestions for improvement that have since been incorporated into the research materials posted here.
EVAWI staff is currently in the process of analyzing data from the MAD project and manuscripts will be submitted for publication so they are widely available.
Collaboration with The Voices and Faces Project
Another important initiative of the MAD project is a joint collaboration with The Voices and Faces Project (TVFP). The Voices and Faces Project is a national documentary project created to give voice and face to survivors of sexual violence, offering a sense of solidarity to those who have lived through rape and abuse while raising awareness of how this human rights and public health issue impacts victims, families and communities. As an initial collaboration, we added a very prominent link to the organization’s web site at the home page for EVAWI. In fact, we did more than simply add a link from our web site – the home page for EVAWI was actually re-designed so it features a picture and excerpt from the story told by a sexual assault survivor. To further enhance the impact of this powerful imagery, a different survivor picture and story was featured each time a visitor enters our home page. Other collaborative efforts have included featuring TVFP’s Executive Director Anne Ream as a plenary speaker and Visionary Award recipient at an international conference hosted by EVAWI Work is also ongoing to continue to expand the impact of both organizations, by working together in creative ways to give voice for survivors of sexual violence and to create change in the communities where they live.
TVFP has partnered with Making a Difference Canada (MDC), to put voices and faces to the issue of sexual assault in Canada. Through a series of survivor driven presentations and workshops co-hosted in Canada, TVFP and MDC sought to explore the question of how the media impacts public attitudes about sexual violence, what faith-based groups can do to better support those who have lived through rape and abuse, and how legal and cultural responses to violence are connected. In Canada, as in the U.S., the absence of the voices and faces of survivors serves to alienate and isolate those who have lived through abuse. Anne K. Ream, TVFP’s project founder, notes, “In Canada, there are no nationally focused public education efforts designed to challenge how Canadians view and respond to sexual assault. In bringing our survivor-focused documentary project to the region, and partnering with our allies at MDC, we hope to call the public to a more compassionate and activist response to such violence.”