An instructor presents material for law enforcement officers from around the region during a Sexual Assault Investigations training in Moab last week. [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

“When you’re interviewing a victim of trauma, you can’t cookie-cutter them,” Bob Church, director of the Utah Prosecution Council, told a room full of police officers at a training held in Moab last week.

The training, called Sexual Assault Investigations, focuses on a trauma-informed approach to interviewing people who have experienced sexual assault. It’s funded by Utah’s 2017 House Bill 200, which mandates the UPC to make the training available for all law enforcement officers in the state. The bill also provided funding to clear a backlog of sexual assault forensic examination kits that had accumulated at the state crime lab, some of them waiting years to be processed. That effort has been a success—the backlog has been elimintated and sexual assault kits are now processed within 30 days.

In one of several modules offered throughout the three-day course, Church explained to attendees how trauma affects the human brain. Control switches from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and that can change the way people react to or recall events. Without an understanding of trauma, it can be hard for law enforcement officers to conduct effective interviews, and often, a gap in understanding has caused investigators to discredit the narratives of traumatized victims and witnesses. That’s part of a widespread problem in sexual assault cases, which are notoriously underreported and hard to prosecute. According to a 2018 article in the Washington Post, it’s estimated that less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions.

Trauma and neurobiology

“For any victim of a traumatic event, the brain acts differently,” said Marlesse Jones, Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Resource Prosecutor for the UPC. She gave an example of a common scenario in which victims behave differently than investigators expect:

“We think that if you were sexually assaulted, you would never want to see that person again,” she said. However, because perpetrators of sexual assault are often known to their victims, the victim may have a strong urge to see the attacker again as they try to reconcile the person they thought they knew with the person who harmed them.

“Unless officers are trained in trauma, they’re going to think, ‘She’s making it up.’ They’ve learned to detect deception,” Jones explained. Officers look for behaviors and clues that indicate lying, such as eye contact avoidance, repetitive statements, fidgeting or sweating. All those behaviors might also be common in someone who’s triggered by recalling a traumatic event, even if it’s months after it occurred.

“Even laughter,” Jones said. “It’s not uncommon for people to laugh.”

It’s difficult to compare statistics on sexual assault crimes, because different agencies track and compile data differently. However, there is at least one case study that suggests that trauma-informed training is effective in improving investigations into sexual assault. In 2014, Julie Valentine, a nursing professor and researcher at Brigham Young University, published results from a study she conducted on sexual assault cases handled at the West Valley City Police Department. She found that between 2003 and 2011, only about 6% of sexual assault cases were prosecuted. She helped develop a module teaching a trauma-informed approach, and a couple of years after the training was implemented at the West Valley department, the prosecution rate for cases handled according to the trauma-informed protocol rose to 22%.

The training developed for that program helped to shape the UPC’s training, which has been offered since 2018.

Church explained that trauma-informed protocols include using a “soft” interview room—a comfortable, welcoming space with couches and plants, for example, rather than a bare room with hard surfaces. Interviewers ask open-ended questions such as “What do you remember?” and “How were you feeling?” which may draw out helpful details like a scent or a texture, rather than asking for specific details like an attacker’s height or what they were wearing—details that our prefrontal cortex might remember easily, but which the subcortical “defensive circuitry” might not record.

“We’ll talk about the neurobiology, how the brain responds to traumatic situations,” Church said of the training module he teaches. He explained the difference between “executive circuitry,” located in the cortex of the brain; and “defensive circuitry,” located in the subcortex, which takes charge when our brains are in “survival mode.” Often, the survival response of someone experiencing trauma is to freeze, a reaction that can seem counterintuitive.

“We hear victims report, ‘I couldn’t move,’” Church said. “Different hormones flood your body—rational thought and decision-making goes out the window.”

Forensic evidence

Interviews are not the only component of sexual assault investigations that has been failing survivors. Sexual assault forensic exam kits were backlogged at the state crime lab, sometimes shelved for years. Sometimes victims never learned the analysis results of the evidence they’d submitted. In addition to mandating the training on sexual assault investigations, House Bill 200 provided for funding to hire more lab technicians to address the kit backlog, and also mandated that the evidence be tracked in a statewide database. Now, victims can check the status of their kits within 24 hours of submitting them, and the kits are processed within 30 days.

Trish Crump and Susan Chassom, both Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners with the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the tracking system has made a world of difference. All parties connected with a case—victims, attorneys, and law enforcement officials—can, with the patient’s permission, access information about the forensic evidence kit through the database. This speeds up investigation and prosecution.

While the elimination of the backlog and the streamlining of the tracking system are encouraging, there’s still room for improvement. There are 23 programs across the state that can provide sexual assault forensic exams, with about 125 qualified nurses (called SANEs). That’s not enough nurses to cover the need, and the COVID pandemic has exacerbated staffing issues across the healthcare industry—including maintaining enough SANEs.

Moab Regional Hospital has expanded its SANE program over the last few years. For a long time, just one nurse—Tina Kelch—was on call for sexual assault forensic exams. Now, there are about eight SANEs on staff under a program headed by MRH nurse Kerri Fife, who collaborates closely with other local service providers to try to ensure a tight safety net for sexual assault survivors.

However, there are still times when there are no SANEs available locally. A recent police report recounts taking a sexual assault survivor to Richfield for an exam, because there were no SANEs available in town at the time.

“We have more certified nurses than most rural towns,” said Abi Taylor, director of Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center, which provides services for victims of abuse. “Kerri Fife has done an incredible job recruiting nurses and coordinating forensic exam training. That being said, the availability of those nurses isn’t always 100%.”

Still, Taylor is optimistic about the progress made by the local Sexual Assault Response Protocol working group, which includes Seekhaven, the hospital, the police department and victim assistance unit, and the Children’s Justice Center.

A unique opportunity

Twenty-eight officers, including five from the Moab City Police Department, attended the Sexual Assault Investigations training, which was held at the Grand Center. In the first years it was offered, the training was only available at the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) facility in Sandy. The UPC has begun touring the state to make it easier for officers from rural areas to attend.

“It’s just so difficult for the rural areas to come up with the manpower to come up to Salt Lake,” Jones said, “and it’s expensive.” So far they’ve brought the course to St. George, Richfield, Logan, Vernal, and now Moab, making it more accessible. Organizers said that four of Blanding City’s five police officers were able to attend the training in Moab; sending that many officers to Sandy would have been more difficult.

“It’s a unique opportunity for local agencies to have interaction and networking with the big players,” said Steve O’Camb, an investigator with the State Bureau of Investigations who helps to coordinate instructors for the training. When local agencies have a question or want to evolve or change, they can look to connections from these state-offered trainings to find more experience or expertise on specific matters. O’Camb said organizers make sure to choose instructors who are still working in their area of expertise, to ensure they’re up to date on the latest practices and technologies.

Jones said the local community was a huge help in bringing the training to town—the Grand Center donated the use of its facilities for free. 

“Moab has been fantastic, as far as facilitating us coming down here,” Jones said.