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Missoulian editorial

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Missoula enters new chapter on sex assaults

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Pabst and Fox

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox talk in Missoula in 2016 about their announcement that the Missoula County Attorney's Office is in full compliance with an agreement to improve the way sexual assault cases are handled by local prosecutors. 

Last week the Missoula County Attorney’s Office marked yet another milestone with the announcement that the Montana Attorney General’s Office is ending its oversight of the local office’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Does that mean it’s time to close the book on the issue of sexual assaults in Missoula? To declare the work done and rest easy, knowing the University of Montana, Missoula Police Department and Missoula County Attorney’s Office are leading the way on best practices for sexual assault response, not just at the state level but nationally as well?

Not at all. Rather, Missoula can now begin an important new chapter – one in which sexual assault prevention is emphasized throughout the community, and when assaults do occur, victims are confident in reporting the assault, are treated with respect and dignity throughout the process, and justice is carried out swiftly and fully.

That was the encouraging take-home from Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox last Wednesday when they sat down with the Missoulian’s editorial board. Pabst and Fox pointed out that the state Attorney General’s Office may be ending its oversight of the county, but communication between the local and state offices is better than ever and will continue.

The county attorney’s office was the third and final entity in Missoula to reach full compliance on its agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched a federal probe in 2012 into the way the county attorney’s office, as well as the Missoula Police Department and University of Montana, were responding to rape reports.

UM and the city police department both entered into agreements with the DOJ the following year, and both reached full compliance last year, in 2015. An agreement with the county attorney, however, was delayed due to resistance from the previous county attorney, Fred Van Valkenburg. Attorney General Fox eventually intervened to settle the dispute between the county attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice, and an agreement was signed in 2014.

Fox’s office began working with Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst as soon as she was elected to office. In addition to making several immediate improvements Pabst had identified, her office worked with state prosecutors and a special technical advisor to study the process and institute further improvements.

Since entering its agreement, according to a joint announcement, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office has:

• Developed clear policies and guidelines for prosecuting sexual assault cases.

• Participated in special training for sexual assault investigation, prosecution, and victim treatment.

• Hired a victim-witness coordinator, investigator and trauma counselor to assist with sexual assault cases and address the effects of secondary trauma on staff.

• Formed a Special Victims Unit that in October will have five dedicated attorneys and a paralegal specializing exclusively in sexual assault cases.

• Improved communication and coordination with law enforcement agencies and community partners.

• Engaged in community outreach.

Perhaps best of all, the focus on improving sexual assault response in Missoula has rippled out across Montana. Other counties are turning to Missoula for expert advice on how to handle cases. The Montana Attorney General’s Office now makes resource materials – including relevant reports and policies – available on its website. And education for all involved continues, with a focus on training at every level of the justice system.

Fox’s office has, for instance:

• Formed a special task force to examine sexual assault evidence kits that local law enforcement agencies haven’t submitted for testing;

• Created a sexual assault prosecution unit within the Attorney General’s Office;

• Increased sexual assault prosecution training opportunities for Montana’s county attorneys;

• Worked with Missoula Sen. Diane Sands to launch a comprehensive legislative review of Montana’s sexual assault laws;

• Initiated regional compliance check operations to locate sex offenders who aren’t following Montana’s sex offender registration laws;

• Significantly reduced the number of undesignated registered sex offenders;

• Improved the user-friendliness and accessibility of the Sexual or Violent Offender Registry website.

On Wednesday, Pabst and Fox said that both the county and state offices will continue looking for ways to improve. Meanwhile, they will continue working together and individually to push for further changes that go beyond the terms of any official agreement.

One such change in particular is an update to state laws concerning consent and incapacitation, which Pabst described as “archaic.” Currently, a victim has to completely unconscious in order to be considered “incapacitated.” The laws essentially require prosecutors to “prove a negative,” that is, that consent was not only not given, but that the victim actively denied consent. Montana’s sex crime laws are overdue for an overhaul.

Here’s where every Missoulian can help write the next chapter. The county attorney underscored that her staff has engaged in every public speaking opportunity they have been offered, and look forward to doing so as often as possible with the goal of community education and prevention of sexual assaults.

They have readily shared their knowledge with the wider community; it’s up to us to take advantage of that growing expertise by encouraging public education on the issues of sexual assault, trauma and the criminal justice system. Too many jurors still cling to disproven myths about rape, such as that it can be triggered by certain kinds of clothing, or that sexual assaults are only committed by violent strangers. It’s also critical that the community support funding requests aimed at ensuring our agencies have the necessary resources and staffing to continue making improvements.

Missoula has come a long way, and it’s only right to pause every so often to appreciate the difficult work, and the exceptional progress, that’s been accomplished.

However, we must never lose sight of the fact that the point of all this work is to make our community safer, and to ensure real justice for the victims of sexual assault. Our university, police and country prosecutors are doing their part. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and join them. Our work, the community’s work, has only started.

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