Starting in January, Texans will be able to donate money for testing sexual assault kits when they apply for driver’s licenses. The state still has a backlog of 3,000 untested kits after reducing it from 20,000.
Texas State Rep. Victoria Neave agrees that citizens shouldn’t have to pass around a figurative hat to help rape victims get justice; footing the costly bill to test sexual assault kits should be the job of government, she says. Because the state and localities seldom allocate enough money to test kits as they come in, Neave hopes generous Texans will help, the Texas Tribune reports. A new law Neave authored will crowdfund rape kit testing statewide. The measure directs the Department of Public Safety to allow Texans to contribute to that cause when applying for and renewing driver’s licenses and personal identification certificates. Applications already ask whether folks want to donate $1 or more to other causes: veterans, the state’s organ and tissue registry and a blindness screening and treatment program. Beginning Jan. 1, applications will also allow donations to test sexual assault kits.
“There are women sitting for years sometimes waiting for justice,” said Neave. “A dollar can go a long way toward bringing someone peace.” Police gather such kits through hours-long, invasive exams of sexual assault victims, and they can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 to analyze. Advocates say testing the kits is crucial to solving cases, finding serial rapists and acquitting the wrongfully accused. The crowdfunding law, coupled with a new two-year appropriation of $4.2 million, is the state’s latest effort to reduce a backlog of untested kits that swelled for years. Public safety officials reported a 20,000-kit backlog in August of that year. Lawmakers in 2013 spent $11 million addressing it. Through May of this year, the pre-2011 backlog still sat above 3,000, while thousands of new sexual assaults occur each year in Texas.
Judges are issuing long prison terms to offenders who trick teenagers and children into sending them sexually explicit photos. Smartphones and social media apps are behind the rise in such crimes.
Robert Dion Ables knew how to sound like a teenage girl. That, a smartphone and a social media app were all he needed to trick a 14-year-old Canadian girl into sending him sexually explicit photos of herself. If she refused to send more, Ables told the girl he would post her photos on her Facebook page. “Sextortion” is a disturbing cybercrime, and the Justice Department has called it “by far” the most significant growing threat to children, the Dallas orning News reports. A federal judge sentenced Ables to 80 years in prison in July. At least two other North Texas men have recently been convicted of sextortion-related crimes in federal court.
Blackmailers typically pose as children on social media sites or a messaging app like Kik. The local cases, like others nationwide, have involved multiple victims. Experts say smartphones and social media apps are behind the alarming rise in such crimes. Federal prosecutors and judges in Texas are showing little mercy toward offenders, many of whom are spending decades behind bars. Carl Rusnok of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dallas said adults study and practice for years to write like teenagers and children, an essential skill in pulling off sextortion schemes. “Children can be lured into these situations by professionals who know how to do this,” he said. “And then they’re blackmailed into showing more and more compromising photos.” Getting children to come forward is not always easy. Many boys victimized in one Texas case were too embarrassed to report the crimes, authorities said. Other child victims suffer from anxiety and depression, and have dropped out of school, cut themselves or killed themselves or attempted suicide.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ announcement that she wants a “better” approach to campus sex assaults has stoked fears that the Trump administration will weaken existing federal legislation banning gender bias in education. TCR examines the reaction from both sides.
Betsy DeVos’ plan to develop a “better” approach to campus sex assaults has stoked fears among activists and victims that the Trump administration is bent on weakening three-decades-old protections from gender-based discrimination in education.
In a speech last week at George Mason University, the Education Secretary criticized the previous administration’s directive mandating that universities take “immediate and appropriate action” to address cases of sexual violence, rather than waiting for cases to be adjudicated through the court system.
The so-called “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Obama administration in 2011 was a response to concerns—supported by statistics—about high rates of assaults against women on campuses around the country, and the failure of the justice system to address them properly.
The directive said a “proactive” response by university administrators would be within the spirit of the protections provided under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act passed in 1972 prohibiting educational discrimination based on gender.
Photo by USM MS via Flickr
But according to DeVos, the directive has “burdened schools with increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines that even lawyers find difficult to understand and navigate.” She said a decision on whether to formally rescind the directive would await a “notice and comment” period for views on both sides to be heard.
But many activists believe DeVos’ comments, such as her warning that the directive sets up a “kangaroo court” for men accused of assaults, suggest she has already made up her mind.
The secretary met with critics of the directive and supporters in separate meetings during a Title IX “summit” in July. Some of the attendees claimed DeVos exhibited dramatically different attitudes towards both groups.
“DeVos did not appear very affected or somber after meeting with us, even though the stories told were powerful and devastating,” one attendee at the meeting with sex assault survivors told The Crime Report. “She certainly did not appear as affected or somber as the men’s rights activists describe her being after their meeting.”
“It’s like DeVos had already made up her mind going in.”
But those who support revising or abandoning the Obama-era directive said they welcomed DeVos’ announcement.
“Schools don’t have access to forensics, they can’t put anyone under oath, they don’t have trained lawyers on each side, so it should surprise no one that there are tremendous injustices in both directions,” said Joe Cohn, policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights for Education (FIRE), an organization that advocates for due process of students accused of rape or sexual assault.
“You cannot create a just world by replacing one injustice with a new injustice. We need to be thinking through ways we can encourage complainants to come forward, where they are treated with decency and respect, but due process isn’t thrown out either.”
According to the 2011 letter, university authorities must take “immediate and appropriate action” on any cases of sexual violence that are brought to their attention, and they do not have to forward the case to law enforcement.
The directive was intended to clarify Title IX provisions that require all federally funded educational institutions to comply with laws prohibiting sex discrimination, or risk losing their funding. Under Title IX, allegations of discrimination are investigated by the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which has already begun keeping a public list of schools subject to investigation, according to The Atlantic.
DeVos supporters have dubbed these “shame lists,” meant to pressure colleges into siding with the victim in order to avoid investigation.
Cohn argues that, although under the current system both the accused and accuser are allowed to have an advisor of choice present with them at a university hearing (which could be a lawyer), that person is prohibited from speaking or taking part in the process, making such advisors “no more useful than a stuffed animal for comfort.”
Cynthia Garrett, co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), an organization created by mothers of sons accused of sexual misconduct, told TCR that DeVos appeared moved by the stories she heard at the meeting with critics last July.
“(She) listened so intently to each person’s story,” Garrett said. “She remembered the story, the names and the details. The room was silent. When we walked out of there, it was like a funeral procession.”
But advocates of greater protection for victims of sexual assaults on campus argued that DeVos showed she did not understand the depth of the problem.
“I think for DeVos and others to assume due process is granted in a criminal or civil setting more than at the university level is making an assumption without [a basis in] criminological theory,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a criminologist at George Mason University.
“The whole system put in place is the trial, which the vast majority of cases never make it to: 95% of the cases are plea bargains.”
Orozco added that she would like to ask DeVos whether she understood the difficulties involved in the trial process, particularly in sexual assault cases.
“If you were familiar (with those difficulties),” she said she would ask DeVos, “How could you remove any types of avenues from these survivors?”
Survivors of sexual assaults worry that removing the directive will add to women’s fears of impunity for perpetrators of campus assaults.
Jessica Davidson, managing director at End Rape on Campus, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, said “It’s important to note that mandatory police reporting is not a good thing for Title IX. Its simple: survivors don’t want to sit next to their rapist in math class anymore, and they don’t want to go to the police for that.”
Douglas Harms, a teacher advocating for reduced sexual assault on campuses, told TCR: “Studies show that the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are not reported to campus authorities, and even fewer are reported to the police; increasing the burden of proof (e.g., from preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing evidence) would, I believe, discourage even more survivors from pursuing justice.”
“Clearly DeVos and the Trump administration have no grip on the epidemic that is happening on campuses,” said one survivor who asked to remain anonymous. “Defending rapists through changing rhetoric is unacceptable, upsetting and invalidates victims’ experiences.
“More than 90% of sexual assaults/ rapes on campus go unreported—including mine—and that’s because the current rules don’t go far enough.”
But the administration’s skepticism about efforts to extend Title IX protections has also received support from law enforcement.
“Title IX can hamper a criminal investigation by alerting suspects to the allegations,” said prosecutor Tim Bookwalter of Putnam County, IN. “In any other case, we approach the suspect for an interview without telegraphing him the allegation in advance.”
According to Bookwalter, sex assault investigations on campus should be handled by law enforcement agencies, just as all such assaults are handled.
DeVos and her supporters argue that the risk to due process posed by investigations conducted by universities is too grave to ignore.
Betsy DeVos. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
“One person denied due process is one too many,” DeVos said, arguing that universities use the lowest standard of proof when evaluating cases of sexual assault.
According to women’s advocacy groups, DeVos has not followed up with any survivors since the July meeting, despite promising them that this was “just the start” and this “would not be a one-time thing.”
Jessica Davidson argues that DeVos falsely portrays the problem of sexual assault as two equal sides.
“To say that assailants and survivors go through something equal is tremendously insulting to survivors of sexual assault,” she said. “Why would anyone equate violent rape and being kicked out of school? The problem is just not the same.”
Both sides seem to agree that the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is not one of men vs. women. Yet, can a system that has been biased for so long be re-created to ensure equality for both sides?
Christina Seung, former President of Code Teal, a student organization fighting against sexual assault, thinks it can’t.
“The system is already skewed to result in very few consequences for the accused,” she said in an interview. “I do not support weakening protection for sexual assault survivors under the guise of legal fairness.”
Meanwhile, as both sides lined up for the comment period, the future of federal policy towards sexual assault on college campuses is unclear. Survivors worry this may be the beginning of a systematic attempt to weaken anti-discrimination protections.
“I have never felt completely safe on my campus, even with our current Title IX policies,” another survivor told TCR.
“To know that DeVos plans to rescind regulations that many have fought for years to establish makes me fear for students, particularly those who enter college with knowledge of how frequent sexual assault happens.”
Megan Hadley is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.
In asking that former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) be put on probation, his lawyers described his behavior as “inexcusable,” but cited his “remarkable progress” over the past year. Prosecutors have recommended a prison term of 21 to 27 months.
Lawyers for Anthony Weiner, the former congressman whose lewd text exchanges with a teenage girl led to his prosecution and embroiled him in an FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton before the presidential election, have asked a judge to spare him a prison sentence, the New York Times reports. In asking that Weiner receive probation, his lawyers described his behavior as “inexcusable,” but cited his “remarkable progress” over the past year. Weiner, 53, writing separately to the judge, cited his “profound” regret for endangering the well-being of the girl, whom he understood to be 15.
He added, “My continued acting out over years crushed the aspirations of my wife and ruined our marriage.” He said his young son “will forever have to answer questions about the public and private failings of his father.” Weiner is to be sentenced on Sept. 25 by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote on one count of transferring obscene material to a minor. He pleaded guilty in May; the charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. The office of Joon Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney, said in Weiner’s plea agreement that a prison sentence in the range of 21 to 27 months would be “fair and appropriate.” The memo submitted by Weiner’s lawyers offers a deeply personal look at the history of his behavior and his political and personal downfall. Weiner resigned from Congress in June 2011, not long after an explicit picture surfaced from his Twitter account.
A bill pending in Congress to make websites liable for publishing information that facilitates sex trafficking doesn’t address the real issues at stake—and may do more harm than good, writes a trafficking expert.
Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would make websites liable for publishing information that facilitates sex trafficking.
But the fundamental problem with the bill, sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), is that it doesn’t address the real issues at stake —and in fact may do more harm than good.
The measure is not based on any theoretical or empirical research; nor does it reflect an authoritative understanding of the scope and history of how commercial sex and sex trafficking are sold in the United States.
Proponents of the bill make two critically flawed assumptions:
Certain websites make it easier to sex traffic than others, instead of the internet as a whole;
Website administrators can accurately discern the difference between a law- abiding business, a consenting adult sex worker, and a victim of sex trafficking—something that trained law enforcement have trouble doing.
Legislators, their constituents and anti-trafficking advocates should first understand the history and landscape of commercial sex advertisements before they rush to pass this bill.
Periodicals have been used to disseminate information about the commercial sex trade for centuries. Between 1757 and 1795 Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies—a concise almanac of prostitutes available for hire in London—was published annually and disseminated to middle and upper class men.
Harris’s descriptions suggest that many of the sex workers were actually trafficked adults or juveniles.
Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, Blue Books containing brothel advertisements and a directory of sex workers were given to visitors and tourists and those seeking a “good time” while in New Orleans, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas.
By the mid- to late-20th century, conventional newspapers and specialty erotic magazines, like Swank in New York, were used to share information about the commercial sex trade locally, by various publishers across the country.
These ads eventually transitioned online with the popularization of the internet.
Despite the claims by some legislators and anti trafficking advocates, who typically are narrowly focused on classified advertisement websites like Craigslist.org and Backpage.com, one particular website did not facilitate sex trafficking.
Many are hosted internationally, possibly beyond the reach of U.S.-based law enforcement, such as USASexGuide.info, InternationalSexGuide.info, and USAAdultClassifieds.info, or on the dark web.
Advertisements hosted on one website are often cross-posted on other forums, social media, dating websites and even in print.
For example, a recent edition of Korean Entertainment Weekly (a free publication for Korean residents in the D.C. Metropolitan Area) features prominent ads for massage parlors that are also advertised on Backpage.com:
When Craigslist.org acquiesced to that request in 2010, the ads were simply displaced, some to the casual encounters dating section of the same website and many to Backpage.com. When Backpage.com also shuttered its adult section earlier this year, the ads were again displaced to the dating section.
Eradicating these commercial sex ads completely is a Sisyphean task.
Third-party businesses should not be held accountable for the crimes committed by traffickers. Instead of avoiding hard decisions for cheap headlines, legislators should start facilitating cooperation between these websites and law enforcement.
In order to combat the historically clandestine crime of sex trafficking, we must increase the capabilities of law enforcement to use online ads as the catalyst for more arrests and rescues.
Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. Dr. Mehlman-Orozco’s writing can be found in The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, The Baltimore Sun, The Diplomatic Courier, among other media.
Of the more than 2,000 kits from possible child victims, Wisconsin authorities have scheduled 62 percent for testing this year or next year at private labs. Law enforcement authorities hope the effort, funded by grants, will help identify and prosecute serial rapists.
Thousands of children provided evidence of possible sexual assaults to Wisconsin police agencies and hospitals that was never sent to state crime labs for testing, reports the USA Today Network.About one-third of Wisconsin’s untested rape kits involve possible child victims. State authorities estimated in 2014 that 6,000 rape kits were sitting in local police and medical facilities. The evidence was never sent to state labs for testing. As of August, the tally of kits involving child sexual assault allegations was at least 2,441.
Of the more than 2,000 kits from possible child victims, state authorities have scheduled 62 percent for testing this year or next year at private labs. Law enforcement authorities hope the effort, funded by grants, will help identify and prosecute serial rapists. Attorney General Brad Schimel believes kits could be legally tested without victim consent, but that would violate privacy rights. State records paint a troubling picture of how law enforcement authorities responded to thousands of reported sexual assaults stretching back decades. Many kits were never sent to labs because police declined to pursue investigations or because prosecutors declined to pursue charges. Those two scenarios explain nearly 42 percent of Wisconsin’s rape kits backlog, including more than 1,000 kits involving possible child victims and more than 900 kits involving possible crimes against young adults.
State Sen. Scott Wiener pushes for a three-tiered system to prevent gay men to be stuck on a lifetime registry for decades for nonviolent offenses.
California’s sex offender registry is broken, law enforcement officials say. As one of only four states that requires lifetime registration for all offenders, California has amassed more than 100,000 names on its list. The registry has become so large that it often produces too many potential suspects to be useful in solving sex crime cases, the Sacramento Bee reports. State Sen. Scott Wiener believes the system is “draconian” to low-level offenders. He cites gay men who have been “stuck on this registry” for decades because they were caught having sex at clandestine hook-up spots in public parks. “They are all treated the same as a sexually violent predator,” he said.
Wiener is proposing to give some registered sex offenders in California a way off the list. The measure – crafted and supported by an unusual alliance of law enforcement agencies, victims’ rights groups and civil liberties organizations – would create a three-tiered system. Someone convicted of a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony could petition a court to be removed from the registry after 10 years, and someone convicted of a serious or violent sex offense could petition to be removed after 20 years. High-risk, sexually violent and repeat violent offenders would still be required to register for life. The bill came to a halt this month when it failed to advance from a key fiscal committee in a secret vote. Wiener doesn’t know whether lawmakers balked at the cost, estimated to be $75 million over the first six years of transition to the new system, or at the political minefield of supporting a policy that might be seen as soft on crime.
The Trump administration will rewrite the Obama administration’s directive on handling campus-based sexual assaults. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says the system has failed both victims and the accused.
The Trump administration will rewrite an Obama-era directive on handling campus sex assaults, says Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, McClatchy Newspapers reports. She said the system has failed both victims and the accused.
Her stance sets the stage for a dramatic reversal of how Title IX, the 1972 law that bars discrimination based on sex in education, is enforced. She was sharply critical of the 2011 message to colleges and universities from President Obama’s Education Department that established how colleges should enforce the law.
“If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” said the message.
DeVos, speaking at George Mason University, took aim at that letter, declaring that the “era of rule by letter is over.” She did not immediately rescind the policy, but launched a public comment period before the Trump administration embarks on what she termed “a better way.”
“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today…,” DeVos said. “Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.”
More than two dozen protesters, some of them representing campus sexual assault survivor groups, stood behind metal barricades outside and chanted “Stop, Betsy, Stop” and “Shame on you, not on us” as DeVos spoke.
Some universities and colleges have come to rely on the work of a small band of self-styled experts in the neurobiology of trauma, who claim that sexual violations provoke a disabling, multifaceted physiological response. The Atlantic calls this “junk science.”
As debate has begun over whether the rules governing sexual-assault adjudication have gone too far, one subject has received almost no attention, although it has become central to the way that many schools and many activists view sexual assault, reports The Atlantic. The federal government has required that all institutions of higher education train staff on the effects of “neurobiological change” in victims of sexual assault, so that officials are able to conduct “trauma-informed” investigations and adjudications. Some schools have come to rely on the work of a small band of self-styled experts in the neurobiology of trauma, who claim that sexual violations provoke a disabling, multifaceted physiological response. Being assaulted is traumatic, and no one should expect those who have been assaulted to have perfect recall or behave perfectly rationally. This argument, which the Atlantic called “junk science,” goes much further. It goes like this: People facing sexual assault become terrified, triggering a potent cascade of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.This chemical flood impairs the prefrontal cortex of the brain, impeding victims’ capacity for rational thought, and interferes with their memory.
They may have significant trouble recalling their assault or describing it coherently or chronologically. The fear of imminent death may further elicit an extended catatonic state known as “tonic immobility,” rendering them powerless to speak or move—they feel “frozen.” As a result, those adjudicating sexual-assault allegations are told, the absence of verbal or physical resistance, the inability to recall crucial parts of an alleged assault, a changing story—none of these factors should raise questions or doubt about a claim. Indeed, all of these behaviors can be considered evidence that an assault occurred.
Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has taught the science of trauma to law-enforcement officials and Title IX administrators. Campbell acknowledged that she is not a neuroscientist, but rather is translating others’ work.
Federal judge finds that Colorado’s sex offender registry can impose what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Judges in six other states have issued similar decisions, but the Supreme Court is yet to revisit the issue.
The three men who challenged Colorado’s Sex Offender Registration Act were sentenced to probation. Two of them also served 90 days in jail. Later, they found that appearing in the state’s online registry of sex offenders made it impossible to lead a normal life. Last week, a federal judge recognized what anyone dealing with the burdens, obstacles, and dangers of life on the registry knows: Its punitive impact far outweighs any value it might have in protecting the public, reports Reason. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch concluded that registration can violate the Eighth Amendment by imposing what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. His judgment contradicts a 2003 Supreme Court decision describing Alaska’s Sex Offender Registration Act as a “civil regulatory scheme” that only incidentally resulted in humiliation and ostracism.
Matsch argued that “the justices did not foresee the ubiquitous influence of social media,” the proliferation of commercial websites peddling information from sex offender registries, or the cheap scare stories that local news outlets would produce based on that information. Those developments have magnified the life-disrupting potential of registration, as illustrated by the experiences of the Colorado plaintiffs. By forcing sex offenders into this precarious situation, Matsch said, the state is punishing them. State or federal courts have reached the same conclusion in Alaska, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Now the question is when the Supreme Court will revisit the issue.