Listening to stories about sexual abuse has been part and parcel of Teresa Huizar’s long career in advocating for children’s rights. But not all the victims she hears from are minors. In one instance, a grandmother told her that she was sexually abused as a child. The grandmother had not told anyone before, not even her husband or family members. What prompted her to make her long-kept secret known: Her grandchild was being abused.

This encounter, Huizar says, happens every so often at children’s advocacy centers. When a child is interviewed about his or her sexual abuse, the accompanying parent or grandparent sometimes also recounts his or her own abuse.

Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, the national association and accrediting body for children’s advocacy centers, says it’s not unusual for victims to come forward many months or even years after an incident.

In 2014 alone, more than 284,000 cases of rape and sexual assault occurred among people 12 and older, according to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey. The survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimates that only a third of those instances were reported to police.

Bridgette Stumpf, co-executive director and director of legal services for the Network for Victim Recovery of DC, says barriers to reporting largely depend on the circumstances surrounding the abuse.

Fear, shame, guilt and conflict may discourage victims from coming forward if sexual violence was committed by someone with whom they have a significant relationship.

“It’s probably someone in their life that they love and care about,” she says. “And they don’t want them to get in trouble.”

In peer-on-peer sexual violence, she says victims might resist coming forward for fear of retaliation, not wanting people to know or not wanting change.

At their respective workplaces, Huizar and Stumpf have seen an increase in “conversion reporting,” which is when someone who did not disclose abuse initially later changes his or her mind and reports it to law enforcement. At the victim recovery network, Stumpf says the presence of an advocate or crime victim rights attorney, who make victims feel supported when they report to police, has helped people come forward. Huizar, meanwhile, attributes an increase in reporting years afterward to a reduction in the stigma of being a sexual victim.

“If you think about it before – the Catholic Church scandal and the Boy Scouts scandal – there used to be an enormous stigma attached to boys who are sexually abused. No one talked about that,” she says. “In the course of those cases – sports figures coming forward and talking about their childhood sexual abuse – it really did a dramatic impact on the reduction in that stigma.”

Advocates at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, also known as RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, say seeking justice can mean different things to different people. Reporting can help victims recover from their abuse and help prevent an offender from abusing someone else.

Representatives of victim advocacy groups and law enforcement helped map out the process of making the first step to disclosure. This is in no way prescriptive, as each case is unique, but understanding how to report could help victims feel more prepared.

The guide below comes from resources provided by RAINN and The National Center for Victims of Crime and the sexual assault incident reporting guidelines produced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Where and how can a victim report abuse?

Victims can call local police or visit a station in person. Most police departments have officers who are trained to interact with victims of sexual assault.

RAINN says it’s helpful to get support from local service providers because they are also knowledgeable about the laws where a victim lives.

To learn more about all available resources, victims may call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or its online hotline.

What happens after making the initial call to police?

Lt. Jacques Poirier, head of the special victims bureau at the Prince William County Police Department in Virginia, says the police department will send a patrol officer to the victim. The officer will ask for basic information, draft an initial report and determine the immediacy of the case. If there’s still danger or a possibility of the abuse happening again, police need to ensure the victim’s safety and well-being.

The patrol officer’s initial report will then be turned over to a supervisor, who will review it and pass it on to detectives. Poirier says the supervisor typically assigns the person who will work on the case.

After reviewing the case, the assigned detective will gather background information, which includes speaking with the victim to get as much detail as possible.

What questions will be asked of the victim?

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has set standards for sexual assault investigations to support officers in preparing cases for prosecution. These guidelines are based on best practices and developed in collaboration with local, state and federal law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates and medical and forensic professionals.

Poirier said a detective will try to get as many details as possible. A strong report should include on-scene evidence and details from both the victim’s and suspect’s accounts.

The police chiefs organization advises detectives to ask victims to describe the assault and get information that would “establish elements such as premeditation/grooming behavior by the perpetrator, coercion, threats and/or force, and traumatic reaction during and after the incident.”

Detectives will need to ask victims what they thought, felt and feared at the time of the assault, as well as how resistance was communicated. The organization notes that silence is not consent. Officers should detail and corroborate what “no” looked or felt like for the victim.

Detectives will also report the victim’s trauma or post-assault behavior. This may include physical changes such as weight loss or gain or changes in daily routines or work performance.

What are the common obstacles with conversion reporting, also known as delayed disclosure?

Poirier says each case is different, but delayed reporting generally presents certain obstacles. Some evidence might have been lost or not be readily accessible because of the passage of time. Details may no longer be as fresh for some victims, he says.

Huizar, of the National Children’s Alliance, says it might be difficult to obtain corroborating evidence from a medical examination. An exam may be largely inconclusive if enough time has passed because the body can heal quickly. Unless a victim has an untreated sexually transmitted disease as a result of the abuse, there may not be signs of that abuse by the time a victim goes through a medical test.

The clothing the victim was wearing at the time of the assault or anything that may have DNA might already be lost. If enough time has passed, a victim’s family might have moved to another place. Huizar says some victims may forget the actual location, especially if they were very young when the incident happened.

At the same time, a lot of things could happen to the offender. Huizar says she has encountered cases in which the offender has died or is in jail for another offense.

Poirier, however, says detectives are used to these challenges.

“There’s a potential for the evidence to be lost or destroyed, but it doesn’t stop us from continuing forward with the investigation,” he says. “It’s just another challenge that’s in front of us that we need to overcome.”

What should victims expect during the interview?

The interview process can be difficult for a victim, primarily because detectives will need to ask deeply personal questions. Often, victims are not familiar with the criminal justice system and find it complicated and intimidating. For these reasons, detectives need to go through trainings on how to communicate effectively with victims of sexual assault.

Poirier says an officer has to show compassion while performing his or her duty. While hard questions need to be asked, it has to be done in a delicate manner to avoid revictimizing the victim. Victims often blame themselves for what happened, so they need a place where they will not be judged.

During victim interviews, the police chiefs organization says officers must attend to the victim’s most urgent needs, such as his or her immediate health and safety issues. Officers also should explain the steps involved in the interview and investigation.

It is considered best practice to allow a victim to have an advocate or support person with him or her during the interview. Victims should let an officer know who they would like to be present. They have the right to accept or decline services, but this does not mean that a thorough investigation should not be conducted.

What should not be done to victims during the interview?

Law enforcement officials typically are prohibited from submitting victims to polygraph or any other truth-telling test. Making this part of the process may lead to distrust between the victim and police and limit the chances of successfully investigating a crime.

Victims must not be pressured to make any decisions regarding their participation in the investigation or prosecution processes. While victims may be reluctant to actively participate, officers should still document any information a victim shares, as this may help catch a serial offender.

What happens after the police interview?

Poirier says the goal for law enforcement is to find probable cause to make an arrest. Apart from interviewing the victim, an investigation will include collecting evidence, locating a suspect, interviewing a suspect and possibly getting a confession from a suspect. After the investigation, police will move forward to obtain a warrant for the criminal charge.

According to RAINN, victims can decide whether they would like to move forward with the investigation after the initial report to law enforcement. But the decision to press criminal charges is up to the state. Although uncommon, a prosecutor may move forward with charges based solely on the available evidence, even if the victim chooses not to be involved.

What does the prosecution need to prove?

The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Difficulties in prosecution are thus not based on identifying the correct suspect or proving that sexual contact occurred. The prosecution needs to prove that the act was not consensual.

These are four common sexual assault defenses, and the police chiefs organization sets out strategies to counter these defenses in its guidelines:

Denial: Collect and document evidence to establish that (nonconsensual) sexual contact did occur

Identity: Collect and preserve DNA samples from the victim and suspect, and other physical evidence from the crime scene(s); document witness statements

Consent: Document fear, force, threat, coercion and/or inability to consent

Impeachment by Contradiction: Document any changes in victim/witness statements, especially as additional details are recalled following the initial trauma/shock of the assault.

What are other options available for victims apart from criminal justice?

The National Center for Victims of Crime lays out the differences between the criminal and civil justice systems, two ways in which sexual abuse victims may pursue justice.

Conviction in a criminal case requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The state controls the proceedings, while the victim acts as a witness for the prosecution. If an arrest has been made and charges filed, the offender may be prosecuted and the crime is considered a crime against the state. Prosecutors represent the interests of the state, and the process is meant to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

A preponderance of evidence, meanwhile, is required to prove liability in a civil case. In contrast with a criminal case, the victim in a civil case makes decisions that will shape the case, including whether to sue, accept a settlement offer or go to trial.

The National Center for Victims of Crime notes that the civil justice system does not attempt to determine the innocence or guilt of an offender. It seeks to discover whether an offender or third party is liable for injuries sustained by the victim as a result of the crime. If found liable, the defendant usually must pay monetary damages to the victim or his or her family.

Stumpf, of the victim recovery network, says civil justice options may include getting a restraining order or filing a lawsuit against the offender or a third party who may have contributed to the assault. A common example of an involved third party is a security office that may have failed to provide proper lighting or other services that affected the victim’s safety.


Reporting to Law Enforcement, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Communicating with Law Enforcement, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Sexual Assault Incident Reports: Investigative Strategies, International Association of Chiefs of Police
Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse: Criminal and Civil Justice, The National Center for Victims of Crime
National Crime Victimization Survey, Bureau of Justice Statistics

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Karol Ilagan was a graduate fellow at the Investigative Reporting Workshop and recently completed her master's in journalism at the University of Missouri. She is a reporter at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, an investigative nonprofit based in Manila.