Nine days before she turned 15, Sarah was sexually assaulted by two teenagers, one of whom she knew from school. They threatened her and told her not to tell anyone. She agreed, but she lied.
“I didn’t wait. I went straight to my mom. I was so terrified and scared,” she said. “And I knew if I didn't go to somebody soon, something else would happen, or they would see me again.”
In making the decision to report the assault, Sarah was in the minority of victims. Sexual assault is the most under-reported of all violent crimes.
“You have to talk to so many people,” she said. “At first I was a little bit nervous, because you know once you talk to the police, you’re going to have to go through a lot pain after that, sitting in court, looking at them.”
It can be a long process to pursue justice for sexual assault in Dane County, but there are are multiple services set up to help victims along the way. Sarah’s story provides an example of what it can look like to walk through them.
REPORTING TO LAW ENFORCEMENT
Two male officers arrived at Sarah's house after her mother called the police.
“I didn’t really want to talk to men,” she said, noting that it took her a while to be comfortable around men in general. “So I was like, ‘Why do I have to talk to male police officers?’”
If victims request it, the Madison Police Department will send female officers to the scene, said Angela Kamoske, a sensitive crimes detective for the Madison Police Department.
Traumatized and in shock, Sarah struggled to relate what had happened.
One of the police officers pulled her mother aside and said he didn’t think Sarah was telling the truth.
“I was so like jumpy and scared, because I was shaking and I was trying to get everything out,” she said, her face mimicking a skeptical stare. “The way he was looking at me, I can’t really describe it."
After this encounter, she felt supported by all those helping her in the system.
FORENSIC NURSE EXAMINERS PROGRAM
The same day, Sarah went to UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital where forensic nurses provided medical care and collected evidence.
There is a special team of forensic nurses at Meriter who handle examinations related to sexual assault, child abuse, elder abuse and domestic violence. When a victim from one of these categories walks into the emergency room, a forensic nurse is paged and will arrive at the hospital within 30 minutes.
The main concern is whether the patient is healthy and all their medical needs are met, said Julie Baisa, co-coordinator of the Forensic Nurse Examination Program at Meriter. The hospital can offer preventative medicine for certain STDs and emergency contraception.
If the victim is over 18, they have the option to report to law enforcement — under 18, it's mandatory for the nurses to report the assault.
Victims over 18 can decide if they want to have evidence collected, a process that involves a full pelvic exam. Fingerprints and DNA can be collected up to five days after an assault.
Victims can also chose to collect evidence without reporting the assault. The evidence can be stored for ten years, in case the victim ever decides to report the crime.
“We let the patient direct the exam,” said Baisa. If a patient doesn’t want to report or have certain areas of their body examined, the forensic nurses respect these preferences.
After the exam, the nurses give discharge instructions and offer a follow-up phone call. Victims are receiving a lot of information at the time of the exam, and the forensic nurses want to ensure they can ask any follow-up questions they have, Baisa said.
The same nurse provides the follow-up call for consistency. The program works hard to make sure victims don’t have to repeatedly tell their story to different people. This is one reason it’s hard to recruit forensic nurses on staff. Nurses must stay with victims until they are discharged, which means the scheduled end of their shift might not be the end of their shift. Additionally, there are no guaranteed working hours.
For Sarah, the exam was one of the worst parts of the whole process.
The nurses compassionately explained each step, but the physical invasiveness of the exam was traumatizing. It was three hours of swabs, photographs and pills. They gave her medication to prevent STDs, which made her sick. Her clothes were taken for evidence. She got home after midnight, and then couldn’t sleep.
RAPE CRISIS CENTER ADVOCATES
Sarah wasn’t alone during the forensic examination. The Rape Crisis Center, an organization that provides support to sexual assault victims, sent an advocate to accompany her. This is part of a 24/7 service they provide to every sexual assault victim who walks into Meriter or calls their help line (608-251-7273). Within thirty minutes of receiving a call, an advocate shows up on site.
The advocates are there to provide emotional support as well as help with paperwork. There are two different programs victims can utilize so they don’t have to pay the cost of their medical exam or forensic evidence collection.
Recently passed Wisconsin Act 351, which went into effect August 1, guarantees that all sexual assault, human trafficking and child abuse victims statewide have a right to have an advocate accompany them to a medical exam.
The Rape Crisis Center provides many other services to sexual violence victims, including support groups, counseling and advocacy.
SENSITIVE CRIMES DETECTIVE
While an officer takes the initial report and interviews the victim, in cases of sexual assault, reports are referred quickly to a sensitive crimes detective. In Sarah’s case, the detective believed her story, which made her feel more supported from then on.
Kamoske, a sensitive crimes detective for the Madison Police Department, usually receives sexual assault reports within a day of the initial call.
She meets with the victim to hear their story. She will answer any questions and walk them through the next steps in the process.
“It really doesn't work to just sit down and be like ‘Tell me the facts’ like you would on a property and damage crime. It’s really taking the time getting to know the victim and making them feel comfortable telling you something that’s so deeply personal,” she said.
Kamoske then begins her investigation, which can involve contacting or tracking down the suspect or taking any evidence to the crime lab. This process can take anywhere from hours to days, depending on how easily available the evidence is. But even with her large caseload, Kamoske is aiming to work fast.
“I try to do as much as I can right away while things are fresh in people’s minds. I want them to be held accountable as soon as possible,” Kamoske said.
In Sarah’s case, it only took a few days for the police to show her pictures of suspects. She was able to identify her two attackers from the pictures and they were arrested. Although one tried to flee to Illinois, he was eventually found.
If Kamoske develops probable cause — which she can a majority of the time — she sends the case to the Dane County District Attorney's Office.
“I will always err on the side of sending it up and having them look at it,” Kamoske said.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE
Unfortunately, the case may not go much further from there. While Kamoske only has to establish probable cause, the district attorney needs to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — a very different standard of evidence, Kamoske said.
The district attorney’s office then decides whether to charge the case.
“For a lot of victims that’s a really confusing point,” said Jaime Sathasivam, director of client programming at the Rape Crisis Center. Victims may have an idea from television that all cases are charged, she said.
“That’s not always true. Sexual assault cases are really, really challenging to prosecute and really, really challenging to investigate,” she said.
Kamoske keeps in touch with victims during this process. If it’s not charged, she helps explain why, and if it is, she maintains contact through the court process.
VICTIM WITNESS UNIT
The Dane County District Attorney’s Office has another service to help explain the process to victims: the victim witness unit. It exists to protect victim and witness rights and help them navigate the court process.
The victim witness unit is important, Sathasivam said, because it gives victims a personal connection to the DA’s office.
“We try really hard to make victims in our case feel comfortable, feel in the know, feel like they're a participant in the case,” said Mark Kerman, a specialist in the unit.
Shelly Rusch, a former assistant district attorney who worked with the unit for years, valued the work of the unit.
“They are in constant contact,” said Rusch. “They don’t get to call the shots on the outcomes of victims — ultimately whether or not the case is suspended or given a plea offer is ultimately in the hands of the prosecutor … They’re incredibly dedicated.”
If the case is charged, the process is far from over.
“It could take years to get through the criminal justice system,” Sathasivam said.
It took months for Sarah’s case to come to trial, because one of the offenders repeatedly fired his lawyer, possibly in an attempt to draw out the process. This meant many hearings where she had to sit in the same room as the offenders.
“I was sitting in court a bunch of times, looking at him, and it was traumatizing over and over again,” she said.
During the trial, she gave her testimony, and when the defense was questioning her, she froze and started hyperventilating. She could see from where she was sitting that some members of the jury were crying as she told her story.
Her offender sat smiling. His family was there supporting him, and staring her down.
But in the witness stand, Sarah felt empowered.
“I think at that moment, I wasn’t scared of him anymore. You look so small to me now ... because I knew I was safe,” she said.
Months later, on the last day of the trial, Sarah and her mother sat by the phone. It rang; her mother answered. “We’ve got good news for you,” Sarah heard.
Both offenders were convicted — one was sentenced to 10 years in state prison, the other to one year. Both were placed on the sex offender registry.
“I felt a big relief, because I knew when he would get out, I would be so long ahead of him in my life,” Sarah said.
Unfortunately, due to the difficulty of prosecuting cases, that kind of result is not very common, Sathasivam said. This can make working with victims difficult.
“We have it on our mind that it's probably likely not to be prosecuted or result in a conviction. And I think that takes a toll on staff, because you completely believe that survivor … and yet you can’t guarantee justice for them,” said Sathasivam.
Dane County came through for Sarah — a success story for justice. She’s appreciative of her team and satisfied with the sentencing.
“I feel like they did a really good job. There were a lot of resources for me,” Sarah said.
She is now married with a baby girl and is excited about the future.
“I feel happy that I’m sharing my story not only for women, but for my daughter,” she said. “It needs to be a topic that’s talked about.”
She wants other victims to tell their stories.
“Even after you tell, you’re scared and stuff, but you do empowered that you took control of a situation that in the moment you did not have control over,” she said.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you can call the Rape Crisis Center helpline 24/7 for confidential crisis counseling, referral and information at 608-251-7273 or Linea De Ayuda at 608-258-2567. You can contact Lilada’s Livingroom at 608-622-7235.