What NJ can do to help sexual violence victims seek justice
Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered an investigation into how his administration handled allegations a top staffer had sexually assaulted a woman during the gubernatorial campaign in the spring of 2017.
Katie Brennan had accused Albert Alvarez of sexual assault immediately after the alleged incident took place, and months later told members of the Murphy administration what happened — but Alvarez kept his job as chief of staff of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority until he resigned at the beginning of this month.
Murphy has said he did not know the nature of the allegations against Alvarez — which did not result in criminal charges when first investigated by the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office, and which are now before the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office for another review — until this month.
According to Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, it's not surprising Alvarez hasn't faced criminal charges — because the vast majority of men who are accused of sexual assault never wind up facing any punishment whatsoever. In Alvarez's case, prosecutors didn't feel they had enough evidence to pursue a conviction, according to multiple reports.
“Our colleagues who work at the national level compile data from several government sources, and the estimates are that of roughly every 1,000 rapes, just 6 perpetrators will ever spend a day in jail,” Teffenhart said.
“Only 310 are even reported to the police, 57 of those 310 lead to an arrest, 11 of those 57 are referred to a prosecutor and only 7 will lead to felony convictions," she said.
She said the current system for handling reported sexual assault cases is dysfunctional, but there is no silver bullet to fix all of the issues that need to be addressed, “because sexual violence is really a socio-cultural issue, and then how the justice system responds to it is also steeped in and connected to our social values and our community norms.”
She said there’s an “incredible uphill climb” for anyone who chooses to come forward and report sexual assault — but said things can and should change.
“The first thing we could do when a survivor comes forward is begin by believing that their testimony is worthy of investigation, and then to investigate thoroughly," Teffenhart said.
She noted the FBI recognizes sexual assault as the second-most violent crime in America, second only to murder. There's often a great deal of trepidation on the part of survivors considering coming forward — “it is an incredibly draining and exhausting process to pursue avenues of justice," Teffenhart said.
She said often, survivors that come forward face incredible public scrutiny “and they’re responsible for bearing the burden of a lot of public conversation about their lifestyle.”
She added we must remember “the only people responsible for sexual assault are those that are committing acts of sexual assault, yet we hear so often of survivors being blamed for the decisions that they’ve made.”
Teffenhart stressed as we continue to see more and more high-profile cases in the news, we must use science “and what we know about trauma and the impact of trauma to build systems that will support survivors pursuits of justice, and I think our own collective desire to hold perpetrators accountable.”
She said there is no legal statute of limitations in New Jersey for criminal charges to be filed but “we have an insufficient two-year civil statute of limitations for sexual assault.”
Teffenhart said many survivors don’t tell anyone, even their closest friends and relatives about a sexual assault for extended periods of time because the trauma is so intense.
“By contrast, we have a six-year civil statute of limitations for trespassing, so we have an incredible imbalance," she said.
Brennan has also criticized the two-year civil statute of limitations, and called on Murphy to pursue changes.
She said every time a high-profile sex assault story emerges, calls to New Jersey rape crisis centers increase by at least 30 percent.
The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-601-7200.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com
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