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Privacy concerns loom over Missouri’s sexual assault cases

Missouri’s sexual assault survivors have experienced gross invasions of privacy because of flaws in state statutes, a hearing revealed Wednesday.

The Missouri Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force hosted its third public hearing Wednesday. Focusing on survivor privacy, the task force heard from a sexual assault survivor, medical practitioners and attorneys.

The 13-member task force was formed last year through legislative action. It’s mission is to collect feedback and recommendations from state and local law enforcement, victim services, forensic science and health care practitioners to help develop “future best practices or clinical guidelines regarding the care and treatment of survivors.”

Julie Murray, a sexual assault survivor, testified first Wednesday and shared her experience as a victim going through Missouri’s judicial system.

“I had to gain a lot of strength knowing my initials and information alluding to my birthday would be written in a statement that could and would be shared with the media,” Murray said. “This was gut-wrenching, and I felt unprotected by the system I needed to trust the most.”

Murray said she believed her identity was going to be protected throughout the legal process, but intimate details of her case were included in the court’s public records because she was the sole victim.

“It should not matter if there’s just one survivor or many of us, we all deserve to have the privilege of being listed as Identified Victim One,” Murray said.

Murray’s experience was echoed by many of the attorneys that spoke to the task force.

Amy Fite, Christian County’s prosecuting attorney for the past 11 years, said the state’s criminal justice system has shortcomings, including its toll on the mental health and privacy of victims.

“One of the shortcomings that you see in the criminal justice system is that in order for someone to participate when they have been victimized by a crime, it is going to be a stressful process for them and it is going to be a lengthy process for them, generally speaking,” Fite said. “And for those who are survivors of sexual assault, it frequently, most unfortunately, is going to be further traumatization for them, and that is something we just don’t want to see happen.”

Joe Taylor, a private attorney in St. Louis for 26 years, said the sexual assault survivors he regularly works with often feel helpless and blindsided by not knowing what information is going to be disclosed to who and when.

With invasive questioning and aggressive tactics used by defense attorneys, Taylor said it’s understandable why survivors feel there’s a lack of privacy and abandon the criminal justice process altogether.

“They need to have all this information — they need to know when things are going to be disclosed, if they’re going to absolutely be disclosed or potentially going to be disclosed or turned over,” Taylor said. “It’s been hard for them, it makes them feel they’re at a disadvantage or they’re about to walk into a trap.”

Fite and Taylor suggested the task force review Missouri’s rape shield law — which determines if evidence related to a victim’s prior sexual conduct is relevant and admissible in court — and expand its power to cover every stage of the criminal justice process, not just the trial.

Both attorneys also suggested the task force take into consideration the state’s redaction process, shifting the responsibility to prosecutors or private attorneys instead of circuit court clerks to keep names out of public documents altogether.

Taylor also suggested the state support survivors having a private attorney present in criminal cases to act in the interest of the victim, not just a prosecutor acting on behalf of the state, and more stringent regulations around what medical documents can be released to criminal defense lawyers in sexual assault cases.

“As you consider what rights a survivor of sexual assault should both have and be consistently afforded across the state, I would respectably suggest they have a right to dignity and a right to keep private their sexual experiences and practices and the intimate moments of their life,” Fite told the task force.

Kristi Patterson, a victim advocate at the Ripley County Prosecutor’s Office, told the committee the system’s privacy issues are made worse in Missouri’s rural communities because of a lack of resources.

Patterson said smaller rural communities lack even the most basic resources for sexual assault victims, such as a hospital with a registered sexual assault nurse examiner on staff.

Jennifer Green, a SANE nurse at St. Luke’s Health Care, said the state also needs more consistency with how evidence is handled in instances where a police report isn’t made.

“Victims of drug-facilitated or incapacitated sexual assaults are much less likely to consent to police involvement at the time of the SANE exam for a variety of reasons,” Green said. “Yet, if and when a police report is made, the victim may have little or no memory of the assault, complicating the investigation and making tangible evidence more valuable.”

Green said some hospitals use the state’s repository to store sexual assault evidence for non-reported cases, while others don’t and instead choose to store the evidence themselves or send it to local law enforcement agencies to store, which means the evidence isn’t always preserved properly.

Green suggested the task force recommend a standardized process for what to do with non-report evidence and provide more details on the proper ways to handle evidence.

Jennifer Hansen, a child abuse pediatrician at Children’s Mercy, brought back an issue the task force heard about in an earlier hearing: the strict lines between pediatric sexual assault care and adult sexual assault care, and how to treat adolescents between the ages 14-17.

Even if a child or teenager rejects a sexual assault kit or examination, nurses are required to provide a report to Child Protective Services and law enforcement.

Hansen said this changes a nurse’s ability to provide privacy and confidentiality to teenagers, who might choose to not disclose certain information after they are told it might have to be reported elsewhere.

Hansen asked the task force to be mindful of the needs of adolescent sexual assault survivors and how they may differ from the needs of children and adults.

The task force has one more hearing, focused on evidence collection, scheduled for Sept. 28.

Previous hearing have centered around current police, hospital and survivor advocate standards and practices related to sexual assault, and struggles around funding for medical services and evidence processing in sexual assault cases.

In addition to hearings, the task force is collecting public comments through an online form at www.surveymonkey.com/r/MORightsTaskForce through the end of the month.

The task force’s work will culminate in a findings report that will be provided to the governor and Missouri General Assembly by
Dec. 31.