In fall 2015, the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) launched the Justice and Gender- Based Violence Research (JGBVR) Initiative to build on its work advancing the role that research plays in improving the lives of women and girls, families and communities. Led by Senior Research Scientist Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., and an interdisciplinary group of collaborators, the JGBVR team conducts and disseminates research that meaningfully addresses the causes and consequences of gender-based violence and the social, health, and justice system responses to violent crime and victimization. To do this work, the initiative builds relationships with partners in the community, the criminal justice system, governmental and non-governmental organizations, international partners, and other researchers and institutes. Nine months later, the team has made great strides in linking its high-quality, gender-informed research with real action to improve the lives of women and girls in all roles of the criminal justice system—victims, offenders, workers, and policymakers.
Improving Outcomes for Child Sexual Abuse Cases
In the U.S., only a small portion of the child sexual abuse (CSA) cases that enter the justice system lead to prosecution while many other cases drop out of the system along the way—a phenomenon referred to as case attrition. To understand why some CSA cases make it to court while others do not, Williams is working in collaboration with Stephanie Block, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Lowell on a research study funded by the National Institute of Justice—The Prosecution of Child Sexual Abuse: A Partnership to Improve Outcomes.
“In the study we take a child development and justice system approach to ask, what is happening with the child sexual abuse cases that make it to prosecution and what are the obstacles that are leading to high attrition rates for so many other cases,” Williams said. Throughout the project, Williams and Block will examine what contributes to successful prosecution of perpetrators while minimizing trauma to victims of CSA and their families. To do this, they will analyze 500 CSA cases that were referred for prosecution in several U.S. counties to look at how the cases progressed through the system.
“We are identifying concerns among prosecutors around victim competency and credibility, victim cooperation, and evidentiary issues,” said Williams referring to preliminary data. Their approach is a case study design: they will take an in-depth look at the trajectories of the 500 CSA cases to capture the different ways prosecutors respond to CSA in the real world, looking at how details about the alleged incident, the victim, the perpetrator, the victim’s family, evidentiary factors, and prosecutorial decisions affect the directions and outcomes of the cases.
A major standout of this study is its collaborative nature. Williams and Block are building researcher-practitioner partnerships by working in conjunction with prosecutors’ offices and community partners to interpret findings that point to different barriers on the path to prosecution and then to use that knowledge to develop best practice guidelines for the field. These researcher-practitioner partnerships, they believe, lead to better criminal justice policy, practice, and research, by incorporating multiple points of view and experiences.
“We really could not do this work alone,” said Block. “Our partners in the field are essential to helping us understand these obstacles to prosecution but also to make sure that our final guidelines will be helpful, from a policy and practice perspective, so that they will be used throughout the field.” Another key component to this research project is mentorship. Over the course of the study, Williams has played a key role as a mentor to Block, helping her to develop her skills as a principal investigator conducting justice system research, and cultivating her interest in creating and sustaining criminal justice research-practitioner partnerships like the ones they rely on to do this work. Thus far, Williams and Block have presented their work at the 2016 International Family Violence and Child Victimization Conference in Portsmouth, NH; the April 2017 Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting in Austin, TX; the 29th Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in Boston, MA, in May 2017; and a May 2017 lunchtime seminar at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Updates on Responding to Sexual Assault on Campus: A National Assessment and Systematic Classification of the Scope and Challenges for Investigation and Adjudication
Principal Investigator: Linda M. Williams, Ph.D.
Co-Principal Investigator: April Pattavina, Ph.D.
Co-Investigators: Alison Cares, Ph.D. and Nan Stein, Ed.D.
Operations Manager: Mary Frederick
Funded by: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice
Decision-Making in Sexual Assault Cases: Multi-site Replication Research on Sexual Violence Case Attrition in the U.S.
Principal Investigators: Linda M. Williams, Ph.D.; Melissa Morabito, Ph.D., and April Pattavina, Ph.D. Funded by: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice
The JGBVR team is currently in the last stages of funded research designed to uncover and interpret patterns in the attrition of sexual assault cases—examining how and why some incidents of sexual assault reported to the police fall out of the system at key decision points during the investigation and prosecution stages. In six jurisdictions across the U.S., they tracked rape and attempted rape cases and documented the flow of reports through each stage, analyzing detailed case records on over 3,000 sexual violence cases to understand the dynamics including victim, offender, and case characteristics associated with attrition. They have conducted interviews and focus groups with key personnel to explore how criminal justice actors understand their roles and describe their experiences in handling sexual assault incidents and to learn about victim experiences and recommendations for change. An important focus of the work is on understanding how relationships between the police, prosecutor, and victim advocates can be improved to facilitate the best possible responses to reports of sexual assault; look for forthcoming reports in late 2017.
During the spring of 2017, Williams served as a research advisor to two Wellesley College students: Cassandra Allen (Class of 2018), recipient of the 2016 Wellesley Centers for Women endowed Class of ’67 internship and Davis Scholar Monica Naranjo (Class of 2018). Both students presented their work at the College’s annual Ruhlman Conference in April 2017. Allen presented the talk, “What Factors Predict the Preparation of Sexual Assault Evidence Kits Among College-Aged Women?” and Naranjo presented, “Responding to Reports of Sexual Violence: Victim Service Professionals Testimonies on Challenges Faced with the Criminal Justice System, Assessment of Victims’ Needs, and Future Recommendations.”
The JGBVR Initiative was represented during a trip to Cabo Verde (see page 8) where Williams presented her work on “Promoting Justice for Women and Improving Responses to Gender-Based Violence” and met with representatives of governmental and non-governmental agencies working toward the health and wellbeing of women and girls and prevention of gender-based violence.