BYU nursing professor helps change Utah’s sexual violence policies

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Mark A. Philbrick
Julie Valentine trains the BYU Police department on January 25, 2016, on processing sexual assault documentation. Valentine’s work has helped make the submission and analysis of all sexual assault evidence kits mandatory. (BYU Photo)

It all started with a simple question.

Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor and certified sexual assault examiner, wondered how many of the sexual assault kits she worked on made it to the crime lab for analysis.

“Nobody knows.”

“There’s no way to track it.”

“There are too many law enforcement agencies.”

The list of excuses given to Valentine went on, and she became determined to find a way to track the submission rates of sexual assault kits, partnering with forensic scientists at the state crime lab to also follow the analysis.

The results of Valentine’s efforts continue to ripple through Utah even now.

Utah’s crime rate remains lower than the national average in all violent crime cases except forcible rape. BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine’s work contributed to a recent change in legislation mandating the submission and analysis of all sexual assault kits. (Universe graphic)

Utah remains lower than the national average in violent crime except for forcible rape. According to the Utah Department of Health’s Violence and Injury Prevention Program, uniform crime reports put Utah’s rape rate consistently higher than the national average.

In 2015, Utah’s reported rape rate was 74.6 women raped per 100,000 females — 19.4 higher than the national rate. This is especially concerning because the average is calculated using reported cases, which constituted only about 12 percent of all rape cases in the state in 2007, according to the 2007 Rape in Utah Survey.

In the last few years, several political and social initiatives have been undertaken to help eradicate sexual violence, fueled largely by the work of Julie Valentine.

Valentine began a study in 2012 and built a database that will soon have records of about 4,000 cases across Utah. Utah County records are in the process of being coded as of Aug. 12, 2017.

Valentine’s original study revealed the sexual assault kit submission rate at multiple sites in Utah was 22.8 percent from 2010 to 2013 within a year of the assault, and 15.4 percent submitted past a year from the assault, equalling a total submission rate of 38.2 percent.

BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine has been researching the issues surrounding sexual assault kit processing since 2011. Her work shows 38.2 percent of sexual assault kits are submitted for analysis. (BYU photo)

Valentine discovered one of the main determinants of kit submission was the jurisdiction where the rape occurred. For example, the submission of sexual assault kits collected in Iron County was a little more than double what it was in neighboring Washington County.

“It just underscores the subjectivity within the decision-making process to submit kits,” Valentine said.

Valentine’s work has resulted in significant policy changes, including the drafting of HB200 with Angela Romero, the bill’s sponsor and House assistant minority whip. The bill passed in 2017 and mandates the submission and analysis of all sexual assault kits, while also creating funding for a tracking system victims can also access.

“We felt that because of the findings we had and the current interest in the public on the issue, it was the right time,” Valentine said. “The chiefs of police across the state, the forensic scientists, the state crime lab were all supportive of it, so we spent many hours working together as a team writing HB200.”

The team examined legislation from other areas of the country and determined both submitting and testing kits needed to be mandatory to prevent backlogs at the crime lab.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, center, is the assistant minority whip for Utah. Romero worked with Julie Valentine on HB200, a bill mandating the submission and analysis of all sexual assault kits in Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“Our goal is to be able to have sexual assault kit results within 30 days,” Romero said. “That’s a long term goal and probably won’t happen for several years, but ultimately we don’t ever want to have to say we have a backlog.”

From 2003 to 2011, only 6 percent of sexual assault cases in Salt Lake County were prosecuted according to Valentine. Romero believes HB200 is important because it gives a voice to victims of sexual assault.

“It shows we as elected officials, governing bodies and law enforcement care about that person who has experienced a horrific crime and that we want to be able to support them so that they’re a survivor,” Romero said.

Since sexual assault kits have become a focus of the government, the Rape Recovery Center has already seen an increase in survivors reporting their assaults and engaging in the criminal justice system.

“Anytime we let survivors know they are a priority, that their stories matter, we are making progress to ending rape in our communities,” said Rape Recovery Center Outreach and Access Coordinator Stephany Murguia.

According to Valentine, both a work force and training for law enforcement, forensic nurses, victim advocacy groups and prosecutors’ offices will play a crucial role in ending sexual violence in Utah.

Valentine commended the law enforcement for their efforts so far.

“That training really has been quite substantial in Utah especially within the last three years,” Valentine said. “Law enforcement has really stepped up to the plate, and we had a huge improvement in the number of kits submitted. Now, about 76 percent of sexual assault kits are being submitted, and this is before HB200.”

Valentine, who served on the BYU Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault last summer, has also been impressed by how quickly changes regarding the handling of sexual assault have happened at BYU as a result of the council’s recommendations. All recommendations either have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented by BYU’s Title IX office as of summer 2017.

Both Valentine and Romero stressed the importance of the Start By Believing campaign, which advocates for believing sexual assault victims.

“There is this myth that there are a lot of false reports of rape and sexual assault, but that is just not true and we have a lot of research to back that up,” Valentine said. “There are some false claims (of rape and sexual assault), about 2 to 8 percent based on multiple studies, but that’s the same as false claims for other crimes.”

Valentine said she thinks treating sexual assault claims with skepticism will discourage victims from reporting to law enforcement, which can allow serial rapists to remain undetected and prevent victims from reaching out to physical and mental health support services.

The National Institute of Justice released a study recommending a victim-centered approach when responding to sexual assault cases in August 2017. Valentine and Romero both contributed to the report as part of the SAFER Act of 2013.

Valentine said it was an honor to work on the SAFER Act of 2013 and believes implementing those findings will also help create lasting improvements in Utah’s fight against sexual violence.