Transcript: Houston Creates a Hotline, Hires Justice Advocate to Help Solve Sexual Assaults

April 2014 interview with Caitlin Sulley, University of Texas at Austin

Caitlin Sulley: In Houston, the larger discussed the issue, and we broke down into a smaller subgroup, working group. And that was comprised of Houston Police Department captains, an assistant chief, sergeants, lieutenants, and even an officer, as well as community -- based advocates and the justice advocate who is the new system-based advocate at the Houston Police Department in the sex crimes unit as well as researchers.

In Houston we learned from talking with survivors that they wanted to exercise a degree of control over the process, and they only wanted to be notified if there was some assurance that the case could move forward, if it could be investigated and possibly prosecuted. So in order to create a way for victims to reach out and get information in an empowering way when they chose to, the Houston Police Department and the partners created the sexual assault information line so that survivors who had reported a sexual assault to Houston Police Department at any time in the past could call the number, or write an email to the email line if they preferred, and find out what happened to their kit and what happened to their case. So the process is that the survivor can choose to call and a trained advocate will respond and obtain some information from them and connect them to any resources that they need. They usually need to get updated contact information and then they are connected to an investigator who can sit down with the survivor and answer any questions that they have. They go back and they open the case file and find out exactly what that survivor wants to know and in some cases reopen and investigate the case.

The justice advocate is a newly created position in the sex crimes unit at the Houston Police Department. The justice advocate is a social worker who has the unique skill to connect with survivors, listen to them, address their needs and their fears, and guide them through the process. She has helped keep them engaged in the process, whereas before the survivor would have stopped answering phone calls, not talked to the investigator anymore. It's a highly stressful process, and the justice advocate helps walk the survivor through that stress. Investigators who are working with the justice advocate will go to the justice advocate when they have questions about a survivor's response or reaction to them, and the justice advocate will help explain it in terms that address the neurobiology of trauma and how those responses actually make complete sense. And the investigator is then able to better understand where that victim is coming from and move forward and talk to the victim and keep them engaged in the process. They understand that survivor and that they're doing the best job that they can to support them as they're going through this process. I've talked to law enforcement in Houston who are working side by side with the justice advocate, and they can't believe that they did this before without a justice advocate. Primarily I've heard the investigators say that the justice advocate helps them respond to the needs of the survivor and keep them engaged in the process. Survivors have described that they are very scared and nervous when an investigator comes to their door to reach out to them and tell them about this new case, this new CODIS hit; however, once they speak with the investigator and with the justice advocate, they have very positive things to say. They say that the investigator was compassionate and listened to them, which is very different from their initial interaction with law enforcement.