April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In March 2021, a Bethel woman protested the handling of her sexual assault case. In response, the City of Bethel held a virtual town hall last week, broadcast on KYUK, to discuss the city’s process for handling sexual assault cases and to respond to community member questions.
The town hall featured Tundra Women’s Coalition (TWC), Bethel Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. These organizations, plus the Bethel District Attorney, comprise Bethel’s Sexual Assault Response Team.
TWC Executive Director Eileen Arnold, who led the meeting, said that the group could not talk about any specific sexual assault cases. Much of the meeting focused on the timeline that normally occurs after a victim reports a sexual assault. Arnold said that the victim has three options: report the crime to law enforcement, not report it, or anonymously report.
If a victim chooses to report a sexual assault, Bethel Police Chief Richard Simmons said that officers would then interview the victim about the details of the crime in the presence of a medical examiner. Sgt. Teague Widmier said that Alaska State Troopers would do the same for victims in villages, but first transport them to Bethel, Hooper Bay, or Aniak for the interview. YKHC’s Dr. Jennifer Prince said that after the interview comes a comprehensive medical exam.
“This is two parts. One is taking a medical exam and making sure that the survivors' bodies, if there's any injuries and if there is anything that we need to do medically, as well as a forensic evidence collection,” Prince said.
The forensic evidence collection includes collecting DNA samples. Once a sexual assault examination is conducted and the rape kit is sent to a state lab, TWC's Arnold said that the case would then go to the district attorney’s office, which would choose whether to prosecute the alleged offender.
“Prosecution will review search warrants, they'll screen cases, they'll make charges, they'll deal with plea issues, they'll take cases to trial, and they'll advise on sentencing,” Arnold said.
If a victim does not want to submit their case to the criminal justice system immediately, they can make an anonymous report. In an anonymous report, the victim gets a medical forensic exam to collect physical evidence immediately following an assault, but has the option to make the report to police at a later date. Arnold also said that people have a choice to not report a sexual assault, and not go through this process.
“And I think our team is very good about letting people know, like, you can stop this process at any point, even during the forensics interview,” Arnold said.
Whatever a victim decides to do, Prince urged them to see a doctor, at the least.
"You might have a sexually transmitted disease and not even know it, and we can provide medications that will help with that,” Prince said. “Pregnancy can also be a major concern after a sexual assault. And there are different types of medication that can help prevent pregnancy as well.”
If they are in Bethel, the victim can elect to have an advocate from TWC guide them through the entire process. An advocate can be present during the police interview, the medical exam, and any potential court hearings. Arnold said that advocates can also provide shelter, help communicate with other response organizations, and explain what is coming next in the process.
“We fill the gaps, because sexual assault is such a complicated issue for people,” Arnold said.
There are three victims shelters in the region: in Bethel, Emmonak, and Hooper Bay. Arnold also said that many tribes have victim services agencies. And there are state organizations like the Violent Crime Compensation Board which provides monetary compensation for victims of crime, and also the Office of Victim Rights, which can audit law enforcement and prosecutors’ investigations.
In the second half of the town hall meeting, Arnold fielded questions from community members.
“I think one question that often comes up is, you know, the wait times. And for sure, we all struggle with the amount of time it takes to respond to cases,” Arnold said.
Chief Simmons said that police often have multiple calls on hold during busy times, so they have to prioritize which calls they respond to first.
“Concerning sexual assault specifically, if the person's in a safe spot, and they're somewhere that we're gonna be able to get to them, that's a high priority call for us because of the nature of the call. But if we have something where somebody's truly getting hurt at the time, or if we have a car accident that's sitting out in the middle of the road, or something where you truly have the chance of a loss of life or an injury or something along those lines, that's going to be a higher priority call,” Simmons said.
Arnold also said that all agencies in Bethel face a large amount of staff turnover, which can exacerbate the amount of time that organizations take to move a victim through the sexual assault response process.
But Arnold and Simmons said that Bethel’s Sexual Assault Response Team is working on improvements. For example, they are considering the option that if police are busy with calls, then TWC advocates could respond to the victim first.
Earlier this month, Bethel City Council voted to hire a former sex crimes prosecutor to review the city’s handling of sexual assault cases.