Sexual violence is the most violent crime a person can survive. The key word here – is survive. These acts of violence are terrifyingly present in our society. One out of five women and one out of ten men will experience rape or attempted rape in their lives.1 Rates of sexual violence are even higher among lesbian women, gay men, and bisexual women.2 Despite these immense numbers, survivors who take the daunting but brave step to come forward and hold their perpetrator accountable, often face a criminal system that fails them.
Less than half a percent.
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) published a report in 2020, finding “survivors who reported to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) faced grossly inadequate responses.”3 The report reviewed publicly available date from 2010-2019, and found “80-90% of sexual harm reports made to CPD did not result in an arrest.”4 These haunting numbers are in line with national averages. Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAAIN) reports that almost 99% of perpetrators of sexual violence “walk free.”5 Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported to police, 46 lead to an arrest, 9 are referred to a prosecutor, 5 lead to a conviction, and 4.6 lead to incarceration.6 That is less than half of a percent.
With these clearly inadequate responses to sexual violence, why would a survivor ever turn to our criminal justice system? Why even report? Three out of four sexual assaults are not reported to the police;7 and 13% of survivors chose not to report because they believed the police would not help them.8 Are they wrong? These numbers highlight the misgivings of a criminal justice system that has systemically failed survivors.
Perhaps the numbers are new to you, but the experiences should not be. We’ve seen these play out in the public eye. The survivors that came forward against USA gymnastics and Larry Nassar in 2017 are a prime example of a society that has refused to believe survivors time and time again even when there are hundreds speaking out. As survivors came forward, it became apparent had just one report been believed, the abuse so many others suffered could have been prevented.
Many survivors believe that coming forward will only do them more harm than good – that at best, no one will believe them – at worst, they will be ridiculed and shamed. The sad reality is these fears are often accurate. When we view these experiences in line with our criminal justice system’s failures, it is clear there are gaps to fill. It’s in this space that our civil system has the ability to rise above society’s blind eye and give survivors a voice, a place to heal, and hold their perpetrators and the institutions that permit and facilitate the violence accountable.
You pick the destination, and I’ll get you there.
As a plaintiff’s attorney, it is hard to tell a survivor I do not have the power to send their assailant to jail. It is even harder when they have turned to the civil system because the criminal system either ignored them entirely, or simply failed. While I can’t get someone convicted, I can help a survivor achieve accountability and some form of justice and healing. This leads to, what is often, my first question for my clients: what are your goals? It differs for everyone. It can be a jury handing out a guilty verdict; a press conference where they get to share their story; a settlement that provides monetary compensation; all of the above; or it might just be me, as their attorney, hearing to their story, believing them, and validating their experiences. To ensure my clients feel comfortable determining for themselves what their goals are, I tell them: I’m effectively their driver. They pick the destination; I’m just the person driving the car, and I’ll do everything in my power to get them where they want to go. Survivors deserve that advocacy on an individual level, and for the civil system to close the gap for the well-being of our entire community.
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