The stories untold
How trauma-informed approaches to sexual violence can help first responders

December 11, 2017

The number of sexual assault cases on the University of Idaho campus alone tell a story — but not all of it.

In 2016, two instances of rape occurred on UI’s campus, compared to the six in 2014, according to UI’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report.

Ninety-five percent of college women who were raped did not report the assault to the police,

according to a U.S. Department of Justice review, which randomly surveyed 4,446 women attending college in 1996.

“Sexual assault is one of the most underreported violent crimes that we have,” UI professor of sociology and criminology Kristine Levan said.

Some survivors of sexual violence blame themselves for their victimization, feel embarrassed or fear they will not be believed, leading to unreported cases, she said.

“It’s really complicated when we look at reporting behaviors and why people don’t report, or sometimes take a very long time to report a sexual assault,” Levan said.

The availability of resources plays a large factor in reporting. Levan said people in rural areas with little resources are less likely to report.

Those who do come forward may experience what she calls “secondary victimization.”

“It can be very traumatic to have to go through the system, and have to relive and recant all the events that happened to them,” she said.

While limited, confidential resources exist across UI’s campus, a report to the staff of these offices does not prompt formal investigation, unlike all UI faculty considered “responsible employees,” Women’s Center Director Lysa Salsbury said.

A responsible employee is anyone who draws a paycheck from the university and is perceived to have some level of authority or responsibility for campus safety, Salsbury said.

“When people decide to report, sometimes they come to us because they’ve heard this is a safe and confidential space to talk about what happened to them.”

While some choose not to report, she said confidential resources provide a way to help survivors understand their options, before beginning formal processes. This guidance ensures students preserve their autonomy, instead of having the choice taken out of their hands, she said.

On-campus confidential resources include Student Health Services, the Counseling & Testing Center and the Ombuds Office. Off-campus options include Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse (ATVP), the Ombuds Office and ATVP, which both have 24-hour crisis hotlines.

A number amounting to 3,436 calls

Between June 2015 and June 2016, ATVP, a non-profit organization advocating for victims of crimes, received 3,436 calls through their hotline and housed 64 survivors in their emergency domestic violence shelter, according to their annual report.

The Women’s Center is a semi-confidential resource, meaning they report non-identifying information in compliance with the Clery Act. The act requires federally funded universities to publish annual safety reports similar to the one UI released in September, which provide campus crime rates over the past three years, and recounts the “details about efforts taken to improve campus safety,” according to the Clery Center website.

When people report cases of sexual violence, they may not want to report a case of sexual violence with the person behind the front desk, so they might speak in generalities, Salsbury said.

The student staff at the Women’s Center are trained to recognize that language and to alert a professional staff member, who are all trained victim core advocates who have undergone training to be a confidential resource, she said.

“The value of having some awareness around a trauma-informed response is knowing that a victim’s story may not necessarily be sequential, it may be missing big pieces of information, they’re may be lack of clarity, there might be inconsistencies,” Salsbury said. “All of those things have to do with the effects of trauma on the brain.”

Which is why some interviewees conduct trauma-informed interviews, like Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews (FETI), Erin Tomlin, personal injury attorney in Moscow, said.

She said these interviews utilize sensory related questions to give a better picture of the survivor’s experience.

In a state of trauma, the brain stores memory differently, Corporal Casey Green of the Moscow Police Department said.

Tomlin said the questions officers ask often seek answers to in interviews with survivors of sexual violence are the who, what, where, when and of the incident.

“Whether you’re accused of a crime or you’re the victim of a crime, the interview questions generally follow the same pattern. And it’s who, what, where why, when,” Tomlin said.

These linear interview models have been used historically, she said, despite a fatal flaw.

“When you say to a victim of a traumatic event, ‘What was the perpetrator’s shirt? What were they wearing? Did you get a license plate number?’ without even consciously meaning to, people fill in the facts of things that they don’t know.”

Taking a trauma-informed approach and conducting interviews like FETI can be a helpful approach for first responders.

“It can trigger a lot more memories and hopefully get a better response to the questions you’re answering,” Green said.

After identifying ways to improve programs and services in order to better serve underrepresented populations, the Women’s Center applied for a grant through the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) in September 2016, Salsbury said. She said the $300,000 grant will be implemented in three phases over three years.

“Primarily we wrote it to increase our prevention education efforts and our victim advocacy efforts for students from underrepresented populations,” she said.

Another part of the grant will provide trauma-informed interview training, FETI, on campus next semester for people doing investigations, she said.

In September, the Women’s Center wrapped up the first year of the grant — the planning year — and entered the implementation year, Salsbury, who was involved in the writing of the grant as a principal investigator, said.

Project Director for the OVW grant, Bekah MillerMacPhee, said Native American students, international students, multicultural students and students in the LGBTQA community are among the underserved communities.

“We currently have a lot of programs at U of I to help students learn about interpersonal violence, and we have a good number of services for survivors,” she said. “But, up until now we haven’t made a concerted effort to make sure those programs and services are culturally responsive.”

Salsbury said hopes the grant project’s efforts to adapt better prepares students of underserved communities to feel comfortable stepping in and speaking up when conflicts arise.


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