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Director’s Corner: Responding to Sexual Assaults

Date

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month and I want to take this opportunity to reflect upon all the strides we have made to sexual assault response practice as a country, and how the lessons learned, investments, and technological advances have made it possible for the apprehension of more criminals, and for victims of sexual assault to find closure.

While it is important to celebrate victories and advancements in science and practice, we must learn from the past and continue to strengthen the response to sexual assault; ensuring victim centered approaches and access to critical tools and information.

In my time at NIJ, I have learned about some of the more complex issues that can affect our nation’s ability to investigate, prosecute, and prevent these terrible crimes. I also have seen how NIJ has emerged as a leader in research and practice, helping to address some of the biggest challenges facing the criminal justice community.

For instance, this past year NIJ published the National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits: A Multidisciplinary Approach. This monumental effort is the result of both NIJ’s commitment to respond to sexual assaults and the dedication of more than 50 subject matter experts, including the law enforcement, medical, legal, advocacy, victim, and forensic laboratory communities. The resulting 35 recommendations not only emphasize the need for communication, collaboration, and transparency among stakeholders, but also promote efficiency, timeliness, and the importance of quality laboratory practice.

NIJ scientists have also been involved in other complementary collaborative efforts to study and help find solutions that will directly impact the response to sexual assaults nationwide. Our scientists have supported both DNA and non-DNA related forensic science research and development, action research projects to study sexual assault in multiple cities, a multi-year sexual assault kit testing collaboration with the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, and numerous other programs that provide direct assistance and technological advancements to our nation’s crime laboratories to help process evidence faster while maintaining high levels of quality.  

It is only because of scientific innovation, largely supported by NIJ, that our nation’s forensic laboratories have the ability to find and test smaller and smaller amounts of crucial evidence and get quality results for cases that years ago would have been unattainable.

In addition to scientific advancements and increased direct support for testing sexual assault evidence, NIJ’s work across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions has led to newfound communication and understanding among  many stakeholders who, historically, have been fragmented.  From those participating in evidence collection, through laboratory processing, advocacy, and case adjudication, all are critical to the successful processing and management of sexual assault cases. 

It has been exciting to see firsthand how the results of NIJ’s efforts are coming to fruition, resulting in  more investigative leads, the identification of suspects, serial rapists being taken off the streets, and justice for victims, all helping to ensure greater public safety.

NIJ will continue to develop and communicate valuable resources in order to maintain momentum moving forward, and I look forward to taking an active leadership role as NIJ continues to provide meaningful opportunities that will serve the criminal justice community.