By Kristy Deer, Greenfield Daily Reporter

HANCOCK COUNTY — When Brent Eaton became county prosecutor in 2015, he noted it had been years since the prosecutor’s office had secured a rape conviction.

That was an alarming statistic, Eaton said.

“You’re looking at a decade and a half to two decades since that had happened,” Eaton said. “When you see that your county has gone this long without a conviction, you can’t look and say we’ve done the job well…. It’s a stat that had to change.”

In the past six years, the county prosecutor has brought a number of cases for rape and sexual assault. Several of them have gone to trial. But Eaton wanted to do more. When he hired Aimee Herring to be his chief deputy prosecutor in 2020, he tasked her with putting together a Sexual Assault Response Team.

As of 2007, state statute required all counties to have at least an affiliation with a regional SART. While the county had filed protocols with the state, Eaton felt the area needed its own SART program.

Now, Herring is chair of a local SART. The multidisciplinary partnership is designed to bring a coordinated response to sexual assault. It will make victim needs a priority, promote public safety and hold offenders accountable, Herring said.

“While our numbers are not as high as nearby counties for sexual violence, even one is too many in our community,” Herring said.

Core members of the team include advocates from each law enforcement agency; a sexual assault nurse examiner who is currently out of county; prosecutors; a representative from the Department of Child Services; Zoey’s Place Child Advocacy Center; and Madison Garrity from Alternatives Inc.

One of the goals is to provide consistent training across the board for police, prosecutors and victim advocate groups. They want to make sure survivors of sexual assault are getting the same level of care regardless of who handles the case.

Herring came to the county from South Bend, where she worked with a special victims unit and an assault response team.

“We need to make sure they have access to resources and services and they know that we’re out here,” Herring said of the Hancock County initiative.

The local SART was officially established at the first of the year. While COVID-19 has prevented them from meeting as often as they’d like, the goal is to have meetings at least once a month until a solid foundation is established. They will then meet quarterly.

While the county currently must use a sexual assault examiner from Anderson, the goal is to have a local health professional or two trained who can help sexual assault victims.

Herring’s other goals over the next 12 to 24 months include providing additional training and engaging in more community outreach and education while bringing more resources to the county.

Increasing prosecution of sexual assaults will be the goal.

“It’s an area that has been lacking in this community,” she said. “Training and access to training surrounding sexual assault has pretty much been non-existent.”

Victims of sexual assault must be treated differently, because the potential for them to be affected long term is so high, Herring noted.

Herring started working on getting a SART together almost immediately after she joined the prosecutor’s office in March 2020. The program guidelines and protocol is at least 100 pages and only needs adopted by SART and approved by the state to become official.

In addition to providing justice for victims, Herring said they want to also help victims with the healing process. April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month and a good time to remind the community of the need to report sexual assault cases.

“Assuring a victim’s safety will be our number one priority,” Herring said.

Part of the initiative concentrate on educating victims about evidence collection, which is vitally important in cases of rape. Something as simple as a shower before going to the police can compromise evidence in a sexual assault case.

“We want to reduce the chance for any interference in evidence collection,” Herring said.

Even if a victim doesn’t want to immediately report the crime to police, getting a medical exam right away is important. The response team will seek to reduce the barriers to such services, which could even include transportation to seek medical treatment.

One of the issues facing SART is there is no specialized victims unit for people to call, which is why training will be so important, Herring said.

Sexual violence can affect many aspects of a survivor’s life, including safety and health, family and work situations and finances. These challenges often lead to perplexing personal and legal questions, Herring said. To receive basic assistance, victims often must navigate a maze of governmental and community agencies.

Sexual Assault Response Teams help survivors through the maze of community services available to them and uses the experiences of survivors to improve those services.

Sexual assault is a crime that deeply affects a victim psychologically and emotionally, state officials note in the state SART guide. Whether or not there are any physical injuries, victims may experience long-term health consequences. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added actual or threatened sexual violence to the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

About SART

The Hancock County Sexual Assault Repsonse Team has 28 current members made up of participants from agencies working with and for survivors, including: Hancock County prosecutor’s office; Alternatives Inc. (victim advocacy and crisis intervention); Sexual Assault Treatment Center (sexual assault nurse examiners); Department of Child Services, Zoey’s Place Child Advocacy Center; and law enforcement officers from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and police departments in Cumberland, Shirley, New Palestine, McCordsville, Fortville and Greenfield.

How SART works

Each Sexual Assault Response Team must develop a plan that establishes the protocol for victim response and treatment, including the collection, preservation, secured storage and destruction of the evidence collected from medical forensic examinations.

The plan must include a plan for adult victims who choose not to report the crime to law enforcement (anonymous or “Jane Doe” cases), including a method of maintaining the confidentiality of the nonreporting victim and developing victim rights and victim notification forms.

Source: Indiana Sexual Assault Response Teams

Courtesy of the Greenfield Daily Reporter