The Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative, led by Co-Directors Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., and April Pattavina, Ph.D., senior research scientists, was recently launched at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). Longtime followers of the Centers may recognize Williams, who was director of research at the Stone Center at WCW from 1996 to 2005. In that role, she led the Navy Family Study, a comprehensive approach to understanding the factors that affect successful and unsuccessful outcomes for Navy families involved with the family advocacy office, as well as the outcomes for adults and children exposed to domestic violence, child physical abuse, or child sexual abuse. Williams co-directed the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center and continued her research on the long-term consequences and memories of child sexual abuse. Pattavina comes to WCW from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where she collaborated with Williams and colleague Melissa S. Morabito, Ph.D., associate professor, on the national multi-site study of sexual assault case attrition through the criminal justice system that is described in the following interview. She brings an interest in applying advances in information and computer technology to the study of social problems. She has been invited to give presentations and workshops on the use of administrative data for policy analysis and received an award from The Boston Foundation for using data to drive community change.
The Wellesley Centers for Women mission is to advance gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing through high quality research, theory, and action programs. How will the new Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative contribute to that goal?
LW: One key element of our approach to understanding violence against women is our emphasis on gender-informed research on gender-based violence. People sometimes conduct research on sexual assault that isn’t informed by an understanding of the key issues that women want addressed. We bring women’s voices, especially victims’ voices, into our work. Of course, it’s women and men we’re thinking about; but as everyone at Wellesley Centers for Women believes, what’s good for women is good for the rest of the world, too.
AP: And we hope our research can result in action and be used to solve problems. One of our priorities is to partner with agencies and establish relationships with the people who are actually doing the work, so, with the justice system this means partnering with the police and the prosecutors—in an objective, research-based kind of environment. We collect data from their records and conduct interviews with detectives, prosecutors, and victim services personnel to understand the context of their work and improve our research. And when we present our results, we definitely want all of the actors at the table.
LW: Because a really important part of the work is to bring the research back to the persons who use it. That is one key step in our research that can be very difficult to do; it takes time, and we may not have a lot of funding support for it. But we don’t want to do “drive-by research,” which is a term we learned through focus groups that Nan Stein (WCW senior research scientist) and I organized many years ago. The workers in battered-women’s shelters say, “The researchers come in, they take all our data, and we never hear from them again!” From my perspective, for all research, the key point is, you (the researchers) must take it back—and try to understand and interpret what was found with the people who are doing the work.
It’s especially challenging, because you need to get people with very different roles in a system or in addressing an issue into the same room to talk about the findings and recommendations. But it’s important to take into account the perspectives of multiple players, and look for “both/and” solutions to problems confronted. Without this key part of the feedback loop, you could end up just writing an article that would sit on a shelf.
The issue of violence against women, gender- based violence, has always been important, but there’s a lot of attention to it now. So, this is a really critical time not only to do research but to figure out how to have an impact on the world, and so I’m hopeful that a group of us can advance things. And I see WCW as an ideal place to do this work.
AP: As a newcomer to WCW, I’m excited about the possibilities of doing research that does have policy impact and is action-oriented, and I’m looking forward to undertaking more projects in a team-based approach with Linda and others here who have that same agenda.
Together, you have decades of experience in research, evaluation, and the development of policies and curricula. What are your respective areas of expertise and interest?
LW: They overlap. We both have done a lot of research on the justice system response to sexual violence and on intimate partner violence.
AP: I’m also interested in possible uses of technology for alternatives to incarceration for women who have had substance-abuse problems, or have been involved in the criminal justice system, or are under correctional supervision, but who now need or could be allowed to live in the community. How can we help those women access services while they’re busy trying to secure or maintain jobs and/or caring for family members? So I’m interested in new technologies, like mobile communications, GPS systems for example, that can help—not just for tracking where women are, but identifying what services are available near them—for example, job training opportunites, or to find child care services or other support.
LW: April also has expertise in working with large data sets, which will be especially useful in our more extensive data collection projects.
My focus has included gender-based violence and sexual abuse of children, including the commercial sexual exploitation of children. That research has involved examining both the nature and extent of these problems, how they impact victims and communities, and what we can do about them—as a society, as individuals, as a criminal justice or health system.
AP: Both of us value multi-disciplinary and multi-method work, and that’s certainly an appeal for us in coming to WCW.
LW: All of this suggests that although the two of us are forming the core of this new initiative, we understand that there are other important partners who will bring other areas of expertise to this work.
You’ve brought to WCW from UMassLowell a major project funded by the National Institute of Justice, which addresses the fact that many cases involving sexual assault drop out of the criminal justice system before reaching trial. Tell us about that project.
AP: It’s designed to be a multi-site replication, across diverse geographical areas and populations in the U.S., of a study completed in Los Angeles in 2012. It will help us learn how and why some reported incidents of sexual assault on women and girls 13 years or older “fall out” of the justice system at key points during the investigation and prosecution stages, and how the overall system response to sexual assault could be improved.
LW: Not only are we looking at what happens across jurisdictions, but in the later steps of this replication study, we’ll bring together police, prosecutors, and victim advocates to help us interpret and better understand what we’ve found about why cases don’t make it through the system (including why some victims are unhappy with the process), and then work together to interpret the results and come up with some solutions.
What are the legal processes that you’ll be researching?
AP: We start with what happens when a sexual assault report is made to the police.
LW: At that point, the police have two options. They can begin an investigation, or they can say that there isn’t enough evidence here to determine that a crime has been committed. So some cases become what they call “unfounded,” and nothing else happens with those.
Others go on to an investigation. Then the quality of the investigation becomes central. As the investigation progresses, maybe the victim becomes unavailable—and how do we understand that? Is it because she is overwhelmed by the trauma of the experience? Is it too difficult for her to get to case-related appointments, or to talk to the police or to prosecutors? What’s happening? Why are so many cases falling out at that point?
AP: Some cases proceed through the investigation, end in an arrest, and go to prosecutors, but then the prosecutors may decide not to take the cases—because they don’t think there’s enough evidence, or for some other reason. So along the way there are all these different decision points by different criminal justice actors. And at each stage a lot of cases fall out for various reasons. For example, estimates of arrests reveal that only between 12 and 45 percent of incidents reported to police will end in an arrest.
LW: Of course, other kinds of crimes also confront difficulties with making arrests; for example, you’re likely to never know who burglarized your house! But even when an arrest is made, between 39 and 82 percent of sexual assaults don’t end up being prosecuted.
AP: So our research is designed to come at the problem from many angles: What in the police investigation might contribute to a case’s falling out? What experiences might have made the victim reluctant to continue it? What was the prosecutor’s role in it, and was that supportive of what the victim wanted, or what the police presented? How do we get all those pieces together to have outcomes that are acceptable to the victims, the system, and society?
How do you get the victims’ experiences into the picture?
LW: We interview victims, and victim-service providers tell us what they hear from victims about their experiences and the problems they confront. Other important research with extensive victim interviewing protocols have provided very comprehensive accounts of victims’ experiences and our work will build on these findings.
A key issue that needs to be addressed is: What do the victims want? And does this change over time? Not every victim wants the same thing. Some victims may not want their cases to go forward to prosecution of the offender, but they want people to believe them, to respect them, to give them time, to anticipate their needs for services.
So what is justice from the point of view of the victim, as well as the community? Of course the system is there for the greater good of justice and public safety, and there’s a lot of balancing that has to go on. But paying attention to what victims want is an important aspect. Some concerns of victims are as simple as “I just don’t have money to get on the bus to go talk to the police again, or go to court” or to pay for child care.
AP: Or they may state: “I’ll lose my job if I take another day off!”
LW: “I’m an hourly employee. Every time I have to go to an appointment, I have to lose money!” So then we have to ask—and we’re not the first people who’ve said this: How does a community that cares about victims help them problem-solve? Can someone in the system drive them to official appointments? Or can officials go to them?
AP: We see some glimmers of change and attempts to be responsive—for example, combining services in one family-justice center that’s a comfortable place for victims, where a woman can perhaps meet with the police and the prosecutors, and where there might be child care available. And all of this in a room that’s not next to where the suspect may be sitting or being interviewed as well!
LW: And providing a bus pass for getting there.
AP: We do see some of those changes happening. But how do we then make them sustainable? Sometimes you have a champion, a star prosecutor or victim advocate who moves things forward—then all of a sudden that person gets another job, and the improvements fall apart. We see a lot of turnover in these roles. How do you keep that momentum?
LW: It’s an interesting question for organizations anywhere.
AP: Of all the conversations Linda and I have had about these issues, that concern would be one of the biggest challenges. It’s one reason that WCW is a good place for us to do this work.
LW: Because someone else here may have something to offer about organizational structure and how to sustain improvements that may come from a totally different area.
I understand that one concern with some cases involves victims’ sexual assault kits collected at the hospital and later tested for perpetrators’ DNA. How does that issue fit into your research?
AP: Obviously one important development has been the ability to collect DNA evidence from rape victims—a process that can be traumatic in itself; but it’s become an important issue over the last few years that many of these kits have been left untested. Some advocacy groups have come forward and said all of these kits should be tested, regardless of the circumstances of any given incident.
So now we’re conducting research to see what happens if you go back in time and test those kits. Would that change outcomes? Would it add new evidence that can then be used to reopen an investigation or move it forward? Some people believe that by testing all of these kits we’ll be able to identify and arrest many more people who were committing sexual assaults, including serial rapists.
Others are saying, what if a located suspect then says the reported assault was consensual? How does that DNA provide more evidence, if it seems to support only what the suspect acknowledges, that the two had sex? The consent issue then becomes the contestable portion and we are examining how is that helpful to the victim? Those are some of the key questions that are evolving around the use of testing DNA in all of these rape cases.
LW: So we’re studying this critical issue. I think it is likely that what we’re going to end up with is that you can’t just have great technology; you’ve got to understand the people piece to understand case outcomes.
AP: What happens to a victim when five years later the authorities come back and say, “Oh, we tested your kit and now we have some more evidence. We can’t promise anything, but we have a suspect identified from a national database of DNA collected from offenders involved in the justice system.”—and she’s moved on with her life and doesn’t want to relive the experience. How do we and the police and prosecutors balance and address those concerns?
LW: Of course another issue is when you test the old backlog of kits you may not have a lot of hits immediately, but the results still could have future usefulness. Every day the system is collecting swabs from new offenders. So five years after the report of a rape, someone gets arrested in another state, and there’s a hit to the old case based on his DNA. The prosecutor might say, “Yeah, let’s go get this bad guy, now we’ve found him,” but the victim might not want to open it up again, or might need special support to be able to do that.
When you have research involving survivors, one wants to be sensitive to not traumatizing them further; but on the other hand I think we make a mistake if we decide, “They’re too fragile.” We’ve found that if we approach survivors with sensitivity and if they think that they’re really going to make a difference, then they want to engage with us. Maybe they didn’t have a good experience with the police or the hospital or whatever, but some will say they want to prosecute a case because it will help others.
This past spring, as senior scholars at WCW, you began collaborating with others at the Centers to plan new programming. What are some of the main issues that you want to pursue?
LW: One area where there’s been a lot of keen interest and available funding is in learning how colleges and universities respond to reports of sexual assault. It ties in a lot with what we’re doing in the current NIJ-funded (National Institute of Justice) study, but we are very interested in helping to examine the policies that colleges and universities are putting into place and how this is working.
AP: The ways campus sexual assaults are investigated are much different from investigations of assaults in the general population. We were thrilled to learn just this month that we will receive, starting January 1, 2016, a new grant from NIJ to study responses to sexual assault on college campuses. We’re interested in learning what the current internal policies are on campuses across the country, how the students find out about those policies, and how they play out when victims report incidents to people in the university, as opposed to the police. We want to understand how those differences impact the process of attrition in taking cases to court.
LW: Some of my past research with other colleagues involved what’s called the “bystander” program and how it works in different kinds of campuses: how a college motivates students who observe another student in a risky situation to step in, speak up, tell somebody, do something to change the situation. The issue is also about education and changing our understanding about sexual assault. Because yes, often the cases the community is most upset about involve rape by a stranger, but in fact most sexual assault happens between people who know one another. How do we make sure that a community understands that this happens, and what an individual’s role can be in terms of intervening?
Observers would never want to put themselves at risk, but it’s important to know ahead of time what the resources and sensible possibilities of action are. It may not be a good idea to run after the guy and try to stop him, but students should know to call somebody, or tell somebody; or a group of students can say, “Hey, come back down here,” if they see a guy taking a girl up to a room; they can intervene and say, “Leave her alone,” and take her back to her dorm.
Another area that we’re interested in focuses on the fact that some women involved in the criminal justice system as offenders have histories of violence and victimization. We want to understand more about that overlap and how it can be dealt with in the justice system response.
AP: We know that women offenders tend to have more past trauma and experience with interpersonal abuse than men. How can that help us understand what their needs are, once they’re out of prison and trying to integrate into the community?
LW: An often-related fact is that most of the women who are in prison now are there for drug offenses.
AP: And relatively minor ones.
LW: Yes. So what different responses can we have to women, especially because we know that those who have experienced violent abuse are more likely to have substance abuse as a consequence?
AP: What kind of help will they need in order to deal with their addiction? We know that women are increasingly becoming involved with heroin and opioids; what are the options available to them, and how are those options different from men’s? Very often, there’s more programming available for men than for women, so how do we figure out what the specific needs are for women, and how do they access services?
Do you want to mention any other examples of what you hope to do here at WCW?
LW: I would add that I want to continue my work on understanding commercial sexual exploitation of children. There’s a lot to be done there, and in human trafficking in general—domestic sex trafficking, trafficking of women and girls.
AP: Our multi-disciplinary approach certainly applies to human trafficking, which usually involves a hidden population that’s very hard to reach. Some recent research shows that health professionals are often the first providers who come into contact with trafficking victims; so one of the recommendations we might come up with is a way to enable their interaction with the criminal justice system in order to identify the victims and bring their traffickers to justice.
What would you consider the most important recent advancements for women and girls, or for families and communities, in the fields of justice and gender-based violence?
AP: One is the willingness of people to talk about it! Gender-based violence has become an important part of the agenda for some policymakers. For example, President Obama has invited people to the White House to talk about sexual assault. So the fact that this issue is getting on the national agenda, or at least getting recognition as an important problem, is a big advancement. There are many laws and policies being passed regarding consent. But how all this will play out is what we hope to research.
Another major advance is that agencies like the National Institute of Justice are providing funding for research in these areas.
LW: Give the National Institute of Justice a big plug! They’re funding our national replication project, for example, and many other important initiatives.
The facts that we’re all now talking about gender-based violence, and it’s gotten the media’s attention, and now there’s some real and significant funding for research—all these facts mean that now is a critical time to try to take the next steps for change. Many people need to be part of that work.
Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., who recently returned to Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) as a senior research scientist, has built a career noted for addressing difficult and new emerging issues in the field of violence against women and sexual assault with new methods and approaches—often including partnerships across professional boundaries. She has published, presented, and consulted widely, she has received more than 16 federal research grants and notably received the Research Career Achievement Award from the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. Although research is the primary focus throughout her career, she is professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and has taught at the University of New Hampshire, Wellesley College, the University of Maryland in Bermuda, and Temple University. Her Ph.D. in sociology was earned at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law.
April Pattavina, Ph.D., a newly appointed senior research scientist at WCW, holds a Ph.D. in Law, Policy & Society from Northeastern University. In 2006 she became an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where she taught four to five courses per year in addition to her extensive researchrelated activities. Previous chapters in her career include appointments at Northeastern University, the University of Maryland, and the Massachusetts Committee on Criminal Justice (Governor’s Anti-Crime Council). In addition to extensive publishing, she has made more than two dozen presentations at annual meetings of professional organizations.