Supporting Cold Case Victims through Notification in Cuyahoga County

Marya Simmons is the supervisor of the Victim Witness Unit at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. Since 2013, she has worked to support survivors through the prosecutorial process. Here, she discusses her role as a system-based advocate on the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) Task Force, which handles cold cases associated with previously unsubmitted rape kits.

END THE BACKLOG: How did you get involved in the cold case effort?

I started in 2013 as a victim advocate when the Task Force began. I am currently the Supervisor for the Victim Witness Unit at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, where I supervise six victim advocates, four of whom are solely dedicated to the Sexual Assault Kit Task Force.

How does Cuyahoga County approach victim notification in cold cases?

The Cuyahoga County SAK Task Force developed and implemented protocols for the investigators, prosecutors, and victim advocates to follow in order to prevent retraumatization by facilitating a victim-centered approach when notifying victims of their untested rape kits. Working as a multi-disciplinary team is an essential component of our victim notification process. Once assigned to a case, investigators and victim advocates collaborate together to strategically discuss their method of contact with a victim prior to notification. The initial contact is generally made in person; however, there are instances when an investigator and victim advocate will make contact with a victim over the telephone. Generally, we try to save discussions about the purpose of the contact until we meet face-to-face, but sometimes this happens at the first contact if the victim wants details at that time.

After the initial brief outreach to a victim, a second meeting will take place to dive into the details of the case and next steps. This second meeting is conducted in-person, as confidentiality and appropriate support for the victim is paramount and is best accomplished face-to-face. When an investigator and a victim advocate meet with a victim, they work to establish a rapport and explain the Task Force’s purpose before going into details regarding the assault and investigation.

What are the strengths that you’ve observed of this team-based approach in the Task Force work?

Victims are able to see that there’s a team behind them fighting for justice. Having a team approach to supporting victims shows them they do not have to go through the criminal justice system process by themselves and this reduces a lot of their anxiety. The members of the Task Force have also built strong relationships amongst each other, and they have established an understanding of each other’s techniques and expertise. Everyone on the team has the same mission: to support victims and fight for justice. So victims are not only in contact with victim advocates—they’re also comfortable with contacting the investigators and prosecutors if they have questions.

Our investigators have been trained by our local Cleveland Rape Crisis Center on the neurobiology of trauma so they have an understanding that there may be challenges in working with victims of sexual assault, and it may be further complicated in cold cases. They bring those trauma-informed training techniques into their work, which I think is a total shift from how victims and law enforcement may have interacted in the past.

Through this approach, survivors are able to see that law enforcement may not respond in the same manner as they may have in the past. This is a new team, and we are all here to help and support the survivor throughout their case. Victims we work with see that they do not have to go through the criminal justice system by themselves, they have consistency and advocacy support to ensure their rights are not violated, and we will support them.

What are some factors that might impact the approach taken to victim notification in particular cold cases?

One challenge is locating the victim for initial contact. Considering that these cases go back decades, victims’ names and addresses may have changed, and so may their willingness to participate in the case. Another challenge is when survivors are not responsive to an investigator’s attempts to reach them. Some victims may not respond because they are not be willing to participate, and we honor that decision after evaluating the factors of the case.

Many factors are looked at for each case before notification. Each case is evaluated as a team and concerns are discussed collectively, with input from each discipline, to determine a unanimous decision on how to proceed with the case. As we know, justice may look different for each victim.

Another challenge is safety during the notification. The investigators evaluate the situation before bringing the victim-advocates out in the field to notify a victim. If the investigators identify that an area is unsafe, they will not risk the safety of a victim-advocate when going out to make initial contact. If the investigator is able to locate the survivor in the field and no advocate is present, they will provide the victim with a resource bag (provided by our local rape crisis center) and contact information for one of our victim advocates.

We’ve also had cases where the identified offender is deceased, and we have notified the survivors in these cases. Often times, knowing that the offender is deceased provides the survivor with a sense of closure.

How does working as a system-based advocate out of the prosecutor’s office shape your work with survivors in cold cases?

It influences me to fight even more to ensure offenders are held accountable through the criminal justice process for the violence and trauma they inflicted on these survivors. Knowing that I work side-by-side with prosecutors provides survivors a certain comfort—they know that I am right there communicating directly with their prosecutor every day. Often that knowledge keeps them engaged with us, and it reduces their stress as we move forward with the case.

Before I joined the prosecutor’s office, I worked as a community-based victim advocate at our local rape crisis center, which broadened my understanding of working with victims of sexual assault, trauma, and how to be an advocate for victims through the judicial system process while on the outside of the system. Whether as a community-based advocate or a system-based advocate, I am an advocate at heart, and that doesn’t change. And survivors benefit from both.

What’s the relationship between system-based advocates and community-based advocates in this effort?

Collaborating with local rape crisis centers is key. Our mission is the same: to ensure victims’ rights and support victims throughout the judicial process without causing them further trauma or harm. We all just want to make sure that victims have a voice throughout this process and that they are connected to the appropriate resources that advocate for their well-being and justice.

At this point, the advocates in our office are the sole advocates working on the cold cases for the Task Force. However, we have created another process and protocol for rape kits dated pre-1993. Although these cases are beyond the statute of limitations, we believe survivors should be notified of any new information found through testing the kits. We are continuing our collaboration with our local rape crisis center and their advocates to involve them in the notification process on these unique cases.

What are some of the ongoing challenges to implementing lasting reform from your perspective?

One of the major challenges is sustaining support from all entities to keep the momentum going for this project and maintaining the resources we currently have. Increasing awareness about sexual assault and the necessity of this project improves how professionals support sexual assault victims today and hopefully prevents a backlog from occurring again.

Working as a multi-disciplinary team is a challenge. Each entity has a specific set of skills and expertise that contribute to the success of the mission and purpose of this project. Embracing everyone’s unique style and supporting each other while keeping the survivor’s best interest is critical. This collaboration between victim advocates and law enforcement is a new generation of advocacy.

Our Task Force has grown tremendously over the last few years. We have made great strides in raising public awareness, maintaining victim engagement, and providing trauma-informed advocacy from the members of our team. Just letting victims know that we are all working together to fight for justice has made a huge impact on our Task Force and the survivors we support.

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials, and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists, and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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