SALT LAKE CITY – Utah lawmakers are preparing a bill aimed at improving the way emotional trauma victims are treated in the criminal justice system.
If passed, the bill would standardize trauma-informed practices across government agencies.
It would devote resources to learning more about the ways victims are affected, as well as addressing some of the pressing problems already identified. The bill will also put in place “trauma-informed practices” for all levels of the justice system, including police officers, medical first responders and the legal courts.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said bettering the criminal justice system is a bipartisan issue, which is why the two have come together to sponsor HB177. As of Jan. 29, the bill has yet to be heard by a committee.
Escamilla and Ivory oversaw a panel discussion on the topic on Capitol Hill Jan. 16.
The panel was split into three different sections. Sexual assault survivors were at the forefront of the evening, telling stories about how the justice system had failed them. The panelists drew rapt attention from the crowd.
Jennifer Livsey and her daughter Rhiannon are all too aware that the justice system needs to reform the way it treats victims of trauma.
Rhiannon’s stepfather sexually abused her for over a decade. After he was arrested, a police officer told Jennifer to come and talk to him in his car. Jennifer remembers blacking in and out of the conversation as the officer told what her husband had been doing to her daughter.
Jennifer and Rhiannon said what happened in the years that followed is difficult to understand unless someone has gone through the same trauma, but they believe it is important to try.
The family experienced serious financial fallout, suicidal thoughts, shaking, nightmares, acute depression and severe mental anguish. Throughout the court process, they said they were forced to endure victim blaming and lies.
Jennifer remembers not being given any instruction for what they were supposed to do or any information about what was going on over the court process. What little information they received was impossible to retain because of the trauma the family experienced.
They assumed the perpetrator would serve a life sentence and did what they could to heal until Jennifer unexpectedly learned he would be released.
“If anybody is really wondering if there is really a hell, there is a hell,” Jennifer said. “It’s when you find out your offender is going to be released.”
Lobbyist Amy Coombs said Rhiannon and Jennifer’s experience is not just the exception; it’s the norm. She surveyed victims about what they experienced throughout the criminal justice system.
“Victims felt like they weren’t being heard,” Coombs said.
Coombs said an immense burden is placed on victims when they are trying to navigate the justice system, but trauma doesn’t just happen in the very beginning.
It’s not just a one-time thing that needs to be addressed, Coombs said. It needs to be across the board.
Ivory said the legislation would be fundamental in helping victims who have trouble remembering and understanding information through the justice system.
Turner Bitton, executive director of Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said survivors of sexual assault are more than their trauma.
“As a survivor, you matter and are entitled to your own healing process,” Bitton said.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, rape or domestic violence, there are resources available. Call 1-800-897-5465 to talk to the Utah Domestic Violence Line or 1-888-421-1100 to talk to the Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line.