Sheryl Richardson remembers the man being on top of her. She remembers the sensation of not being able to hold her head up. She remembers how she felt afterwards.
“I was in a lot of pain,” she said. “A lot of pain.”
Other details are fuzzy. Richardson said she was drugged and raped in her central Topeka, Kansas apartment. The man took her keys and drove off with her vehicle.
Richardson didn’t report the incident for several months, but it was eating at her; so eventually she went to the city’s Law Enforcement Center to talk with a Topeka police detective.
“It’s nice to know someone believes you,” she said.
But even though Richardson could identify the man who assaulted her, an arrest still hadn’t been made at the time this article was written.
According to a report from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, in 2017, a rape occurred every seven hours and six minutes in the state. Although survivors reported knowing who the suspect was in 80 percent of incidents, only 13 percent resulted in an arrest.
Justice for survivors through the criminal justice system remains elusive in Kansas.
The likelihood of a conviction drops off at each step of the criminal justice system, from making an arrest to the filing of charges. While investigations are complicated by delayed reporting and trauma, prosecuting cases becomes difficult when there is negligible evidence and he-said-she-said testimony.
However, advocates say bringing a case to the justice system can compound the trauma of a sexual assault and that healing may have to come from other avenues.
The Topeka Police Department’s Special Victims Unit offers one such alternative.
Police Lt. Jennifer Cross, who heads the unit, said that although police want higher arrest rates. “better services to victims” can have a significant impact.
She points to the fact that the number of rapes reported in Topeka nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018, from 44 to 84.
The increase “tells us that our victims’ services and our collaboration is improving because victims are more comfortable coming forward,” Cross said.
“The number one thing, though, is I think that we have to believe victims unless there’s something that tells us we shouldn’t believe victims.”
The first challenge, she said, is to overcome the trauma experienced by victims, which take many forms, ranging from not being ready to talk about what happened, to young victims not realizing the nature of the offense. Others may be hesitant to come forward because they were using drugs or drinking under the legal age.
“There’s a lot of victim blaming that goes on from the victims themselves where they second-guess decisions they made or choices they made and we have to get them comfortable enough,” Cross said.
“What’s important for us is to ensure that victims understand that they’re not to blame for something that happened to them, even if there were choices that they made that they’re not OK with disclosing and creating that environment where disclosure is more likely to occur.”
The unit in the past couple of years has worked to become more victim-centered. The Topeka Police Department partners with the YWCA’s Center for Safety and Empowerment to connect victims with services.
“Even if you can’t get a criminal prosecution, the more services, and the more support that a victim receives, the more likely they are to be able to overcome that trauma and move forward,” Cross said.
A detective from the unit was recently approved to undergo Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) training, a method that takes into account trauma responses. The unit also engages with street-level officers about initial police responses.
Cross said justice varies from victim to victim.
“Justice for us is full accountability to someone who perpetrates a crime like that against anyone,” she said.
“But sometimes that’s difficult for us too, because our idea of justice and what we want to see the outcome be is different than what the victim wants, and part of the victim-centered approach is being sensitive to what the victim wants and not pushing our agenda on them either.
“One of the difficulties we face is wanting to move forward more with a victim who’s not ready to do so and trying to find ways to be OK with that.”
The Difficulty of Prosecuting Rape Cases
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay said prosecuting rape cases is “absolutely more difficult.”
Cases may or may not have physical evidence. They can hinge on one person’s credibility, becoming a he-said-she-said situation. There usually isn’t a witness. Some victims may waver on testifying.
A case will proceed if there is “a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” Kagay said. Some cases may have a 50-50 chance. If there is a clear path to conviction, the DA’s office will go forward.
“[With] sex cases in particular, I think, you have to be willing to take that step forward,” he said.
The office has a victim-witness coordinator who serves as a point of contact, relaying logistical information like court dates, connecting victims to resources and accompanying them to court. They also partner with the YWCA, which can provide an advocate.
Kagay said they have to balance a victim’s needs with holding an offender accountable.
“If someone’s willing to rape another human being, chances are they’d be willing to rape another human being,” he said.
Kagay said he hasn’t ever heard from a victim who regretted testifying.
“On the contrary, I think it tends to be a more empowering experience for them to be able to get up there and tell their story,” he said.
Justice, according to Kagay, is what a jury decides.
“If we believe our victim, and we do because we’ve filed the case and are moving forward, then we believe justice should be the jury also believing the victim and holding that person accountable,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to be OK with whatever they decide.”
That means when a jury acquits a defendant, “We have to call that justice too.”
Victim Turned Advocate
Shannon Reid, 34, said she survived 12 years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. She reported it to authorities in fall 2007, about four years after it ended, when she found out her stepbrother had an infant daughter.
“I was scared for her, and so that was what prompted me to report,” Reid said.
The Lawrence, Kansas police detective “did right by me,” Reid recalled. “She acted like an advocate.”
Reid said the detective obtained overwhelming evidence, but the case “very abruptly ended at the DA’s office,” who declined to prosecute.
“I felt gobsmacked,” she said.
The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office said it evaluates probable cause and the likelihood of a favorable jury outcome, considering such factors as victim and suspect statements, physical evidence and corroboration.
Reid’s case occurred when there was still a five-year statute of limitations on prosecuting rape cases. That law changed in 2013.
There was an allegation of long-term sexual abuse that ended in 2003,” the DA’s office said.
“A report was made to law enforcement on November 28, 2007. An investigation resulted in credible evidence of sexual abuse by the suspect; however, a case could not be filed due to the running of the statute of limitations in effect at the time of the events.”
Reid was angry for a while and internalized shame. Maybe if she had reported it sooner it would have been prosecuted, she thought. But then she began to wonder why it turned out the way it did. She turned to learning advocacy, and she now works as a court advocate in domestic violence cases.
“I do this work because of my experiences and in part to think about what life would have been like had any advocate come ever into my or my mom’s life and stood by us,” she said.
Reid has “a very different definition of justice now than I did when I decided to report it.”
She said going through the criminal justice system can be disempowering. The victim’s role is to tell the story over and over, she said, but they don’t have a seat at the table in the decision-making process.
“It becomes everybody else’s crusade,” she said.
She believes it is realistic to change things so victims have more power and choice in asking for certain actions to be taken.
As it stands now, however, “I definitely don’t believe that justice is possible through the legal system personally,” Reid said.
Even if her stepfather had gone to prison, she said, it only would have made him more dangerous, because incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate.
The Quest for Healing
Michelle Treglio said justice may not be possible in her situation because the person who abused her has died.
But healing is a different story.
One of the most important parts of that process has been understanding the biological responses to trauma. Through therapy, she has learned that people’s brains have a “safety net” where they can put painful things away. But when those experiences are triggered, it causes a “swirly tornado” that can make it difficult to go through the criminal justice system.
“Everything is kind of jumbled — your dates, exactly what people said, everything — because it’s such an emotional thing and a fearful thing,” she said. “Then they discredit you.”
Michelle McCormick, director of the YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment in northeast Kansas, said rape is “wildly under-reported,” but she credited the #MeToo movement with helping foster dialogue about sexual violence.
According to national statistics, 68 percent of incidents go unreported. In 2018, the center received 319 reports of sexual assault or sexual violence, McCormick said.
We credit some people feeling more comfortable coming forward to some social movements that have been happening like #MeToo because it created some space for people to come forward,” she said.
The week after #MeToo went viral in October 2017, the center’s hotline saw a 433 percent spike in calls. Similar increases occurred last year when Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed, and this year after a documentary alleging child sex abuse by Michael Jackson was released.
“There’s more dialogue about it, and thank God, because it’s stuff that you tend to hold in,” Treglio said.
McCormick said societal shifts need to occur.
“It has to happen in every sphere, in my mind — it has to happen at home, in families, in those kinds of relationships, it has to happen in schools, it has to happen in our criminal justice system,” she said.
“It has to happen everywhere that we come to terms with the fact that we have some ugly dynamics going on as human beings and in our culture and we have to be brave enough to face it.”
Other changes include more consent education, better responses to child abuse and different messages to boys and men about the meaning of masculinity. McCormick also said there needs to be an understanding that harmful behavior is on a continuum.
“Some of the cultural aspects that lead up to this don’t get challenged enough in our culture,” she said, pointing to sexual harassment.
Treglio said they were on the right track, but more work needs to be done.
“The survivors lead the way,” McCormick said.
“They show us, they teach us, they inspire us.”
Katie Moore, a staff writer for the Topeka Capital-Journal, is a 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a slightly abridged version of a reporting project prepared as part of her fellowship. Read the full story here.