Women’s Center reaches out to sexual assault victims | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Women’s Center reaches out to sexual assault victims

Jill Darby

The South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center is dedicated to providing emotional support to victims of sexual assault.

If a victim chooses to come forward about his or her attack, Sexual Assault Response Team crisis advocates from the center are available throughout the medical and legal process which follows reporting the incident.

SART advocates are present during a victim’s evidentiary medical exam and throughout hearing or trial stages.

“Its very important,” Women’s Center Community Educator Lois Denowitz said. “There is such a loss of power and control because of sexual assault. It gives the victim some power and control back, having the advocate there to tell them what’s going to happen next. We’re there to help guide (the victim) through it emotionally while the nurse is there medically.”

Crisis counselors also help victims who opt not to report their attack to law enforcement.

“It’s not unusual for people not to report a rape,” Denowitz said. “It’s not so easy for a rape victim to come forward but they can always call our crisis line and discuss it and we’ll talk about counseling services and some of the options they have. Sometimes it is just as simple as telling another person it happened. It starts the healing process. It starts the process of integrating what happened into your life. You learn how to go on with your life. It’s not the primary focus of your life anymore. But that doesn’t mean you forget.”

The Women’s Center also is open to help sexual assault survivors who were attacked in the past.

“If something triggers a sexual assault that happened years ago, thoughts come back about the sexual assault, fears, nightmares, then our crisis line is always available for someone to call,” Denowitz said. “The call can be anonymous. If they’re not sleeping, if this is consuming their thoughts again then that is something our crisis counselors are equipped to talk with them about. They can say whatever they want to say. It’s their phone call. Our crisis line is about what they want to talk about.”

All of the center’s crisis counselors are trained in sexual assault and other crisis intervention techniques. The line is open 24 hours a day.

Group effort is required to provide victims of sexual assault with the encouragement and empowerment they need, said Denowitz, who commented on the teamwork displayed during a recent South Shore sexual assault trial.

“I’d like to thank our District Attorney’s Office, Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe and (Deputy District Attorney) Peter O’Hara,” she said. “Peter O’Hara was one of the most prepared district attorneys that I’ve seen. He takes sexual assault very seriously. I think he is a role model. And of course we’d like to thank Victim Witness. We had three victims testify and I don’t think that would have happened if not for Victim Witness.”

n Role of District Attorney’s Office

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office plays a key role in sexual assault legalities.

Cases generally end up at the District Attorney’s Office once law enforcement has a statement from the victim and a suspect for the crime.

“If the case arrives here it’s going to be assigned to a prosecutor to review based on the alphabet spelling of the suspect’s last name,” Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said. “It is reviewed by a deputy district attorney and what they’re looking for is, ‘Can I prove this crime was committed and was perpetrated by this person beyond a reasonable doubt?’ Sometimes they’ll look at the case and see there are a few more things to be done so it will go back to law enforcement for further investigation. Sometimes it takes a long period of time to do a follow up. In most cases we do not see the need to send back for follow-up. Our law enforcement is very experienced.”

Sometimes the District Attorney’s Office will interview a victim before deciding whether or not the prosecutor can prove the case.

“If we feel we can prove it, and sometimes we’ll call in the victim to talk to them, then we file a complaint and typically we either ask the court to issue an arrest warrant for the (suspect) or we cite them to court,” Uthe said. “We cause them to be arrested, then they’re brought into court and the formal proceedings begin. There is an arraignment, then a preliminary hearing.”

Uthe said most sexual assault cases are felonies but many do not go to trial due to congestion in the courts and the potential trauma to the victim. However, if justice is better served through a trial, then a backed-up court schedule will not interfere.

“If the judge finds sufficient reason to hold the person for trial, a trial is set generally before a jury,” he said. “There generally will be attempts to settle the case before the trial but it is important to us that we do the job right, that we don’t create an injustice simply because of the congestion of a trial calendar. We take the case to trial if need be. If we do, we’re going to talk to victims. We’re going to talk to witnesses, argue the case, argue sentencing and then if there is an appeal, we’ll have some involvement.”

Uthe said he is pleased so many local agencies join forces where sexual assault is concerned.

“I think what is kind of neat about this is how many people involve themselves in the process to see that justice is done,” he said. “There are seven or eight distinct entities and they are all dedicated to making this work. There is a lot going on behind the scenes. The whole focus is making this experience the most decent it can be for the victim and at the same time do the job (thoroughly).”

n Role of Victim Witness

Victim Witness is aimed at reducing the trauma victims of crimes experience, by guiding them through the criminal justice system and offering services to assist in recovery.

While the Women’s Center SART advocates perform crisis counseling for sexual assault victims, Victim Witness provides support as a legal-oriented advocate.

“Victim Witness enters the process early on,” said Uthe, who participated in Victim Witness in San Mateo County when it was an experimental pilot program. “They help the victim in a lot of ways, going to court to provide support, helping advocate for them. It is nice to have someone whose interest is to the victim. My interest is upholding justice and doing the job right. Victim Witness can also help the victim to understand the legal issues and process. They also function after the fact. If the suspect is going to be paroled, Victim Witness lets the victim and the family know and notifies the state to make sure there will be no contact.”

Victim Witness Specialist Jill Morse said the advocate’s role is to offer expertise of law, serve as a contact between the victim and the district attorney and keep victims and witnesses updated on the nuts and bolts of the case.

If a case is going to trial, advocates take victims into the courtroom prior to testifying to familiarize them with what is going to happen.

“Once the trial is done and the jury comes back with a verdict we talk with the victim as far as losses, restitution losses,” Morse said. “We ask them to make a victim impact statement at the time of sentencing. It can be done orally in court or in writing. It’s very important that the victims have their say in the sentencing. It’s their right and it also gives them closure.”

n Role of the court

El Dorado County Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury explained how sexual assault cases are handled in the courtroom.

“Typically in our court a case is assigned to a particular judge and that judge will hear the case from start to finish,” Kingsbury said. “In terms of a victim’s participation in the court process, victims have the right to be heard concerning their case and how their case should be handled.”

The court does what it can to ensure a victim feels as safe and at ease as possible.

“We do as much as we can to try to make the process a comfortable one for someone who has been a victim of that sort of assault,” Kingsbury said. “The court also participates in other ways such as jury selection. One of the things we want to find out is if a particular person can be fair and impartial.”

Kingsbury said someone who has been a victim of a sexual assault or an incident similar to the one being tried or been accused of a similar incident does not make for an impartial juror in a sexual assault case.

“We try to provide a forum that encourages candor on the part of the victim,” she said. “I make it a point to handle the process interviewing (jurors) individually. It makes for a somewhat longer jury selection but it also helps ensure a fair trial and reduces the trauma for someone who has tried to put an incident like that behind him or her.”

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