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Advocating for Victims of Violence Against Women

Article in Spanish

When a woman is sexually assaulted or beaten by her intimate partner, most often she is immediately thrown into the alien and sometimes hostile world of the criminal justice system. At such a moment when she is severely traumatized and feels least able to make decisions, it can be critically important for her to have an advocate to monitor the conduct of law enforcement and to intervene on her behalf if that becomes necessary

Here are some guidelines to help you advocate on your own case of that of a friend, client or relative. The specific legal provisions outlined here apply in Sonoma County, California, but remember, laws and law enforcement protocols vary from state to state and county to county. Some of those specifics might be different where you live.


IThe Police Process
  • When police arrive at the crime scene, ask them to issue an emergency protective order. This gives the victim 7 days to get a restraining order in place. These orders should include prohibiting third party contact if there is concern about retaliation by the perpetrator's friends or family. VICTIM SHOULD IMMEDIATELY REPORT EVERY VIOLATION OF ANY PROTECTIVE ORDER TO POLICE AND THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY.

  • If there are subsequent assaults or restraining order violations to report to police, call 911. Often the responding officer or detective will encourage the victim to call them personally; however, in some cases such calls are not recorded and therefore there is no documentation of these incidents. Call 911; then call the individual officer.

  • In rape cases, make sure police order a rape exam, which must be conducted within 72 hours of the assault. The victim has the right to have an advocate present and to refuse any/all parts of the exam.

  • Officers responding to a sexual assault should only ask enough to determine that it's a rape; then a detective should be called. Beware if the victim is asked to make multiple statements to police, as discrepancies in her statements can be used to discredit her in court.

  • There are a host of special requirements for police responding to a domestic violence call. In our county these include mandated arrest in cases of visible injury or restraining order violations, and the requirement that police remove all firearms from the home. For more information on these requirements, see "Domestic Violence: What Should Happen When Police Arrive."

  • Tell police if you know the perpetrator possesses firearms.

  • In the days after the attack, get a copy of the crime report. (The victim has a right to at least the face sheet of the report and her statement.) The police report is all the district attorney's office will use to make their decision as to whether charges will be filed, so it's really important to do whatever you can to get the official police documents to be as accurate and complete as possible. For example:
    • Make sure all physical evidence of the violence was collected by police (clothing, photos of the scene, phones pulled out of the wall, broken furniture, etc.).

    • Make sure the 911 tape has been captured. (911 tapes are erased after a period of time.)

    • File a supplemental report if there are errors or omissions in the report. Be sure to include all threats, and the victim's state of fear. It's a good idea to write this out at home where you are relaxed and have time to think about it and then take it in to police.

    If there are witnesses to the violence who are not included in the police report, notify police who should be interviewed. If police don't conduct those interviews, have the witnesses themselves go to the police station and file supplemental reports.

    • Make sure the perpetrator's past violence against this or any other victim is recorded by police. Be sure to include all sex crimes, as these usually are clear felonies.
    • Make sure medical records on injuries from the assault are on file with police.
    • Make sure the victim's injuries are photographed by police at the time of the assault. Because bruising is often more pronounced 2-3 days later, she might need to go back to police and have them photographed again. If that's not possible, have someone else photograph them and sign a sworn declaration stating when the photos were taken and by whom.
  • If at all possible, someone (an advocate, friend or family member) should be present at all interviews with the victim by police or any other law enforcement official. In rape cases, the victim has the legally protected right to have the advocate of her choice AND a support person present at all interviews with police or district attorney officials.

  • As soon as possible after the incident the victim and/or her advocate should contact the detective assigned to the case. Let her/him know you are watching the case. Keep in close contact with the detective.
If the perpetrator is arrested:
  • About two days after arraignment there will be a bail hearing to determine the amount of bail. Victim should talk with the probation officer preparing the report for that hearing.
  • Make sure police note that the victim is to be notified when the perpetrator is released from jail. Also contact the jail directly and make sure they know she wants to be notified.

If the perpetrator is not arrested:

  • Contact the detective assigned to the case and find out what they're missing to keep them from making an arrest. Do whatever you can to get them what they need. Impress them with the victim's state of fear and danger she is in. Keep on them.
  • Ask the detective if all pertinent evidence has been sent to the lab.
  • Rapists are frequently not arrested right away so covert investigative techniques (i.e., phone traps) can be used.
  • Be suspicious if law enforcement says it's a "he said/she said." Make sure they've tried a phone trap.
If you're not satisfied with how the police are handling the case:
  • Go over the detective's head and involve her/his superiors. Where there are special rape/domestic violence teams, contact the team supervisor; otherwise contact the sergeant.
  • Write a letter to superior officers outlining the problems with the case and request a meeting to discuss it. (Your local rape crisis center, women's rights group, or domestic violence shelter may want to write a cover letter to add more weight to the complaint.)
  • File a formal complaint against the police agency and individual officer(s).
    • Beware of retaliation. You may want to wait until the case is over.
    • Even if you wait to file it, write the complaint while everything is fresh. Include as much detail as possible. Document everything -- what was said as well as what was done.

IThe District Attorney Process

  • Prior to arraignment, the victim should tell the Deputy District Attorney (DDA) prosecuting her case that she wants a criminal protective order even if the defendant is in custody. (Perpetrators often will call the victim from jail to intimidate her or try to talk her out of testifying.) A criminal protective order is like a restraining order only better. Get a copy of the order before you leave the courthouse that day.

  • Report every single violation of the criminal protective order, including threats by the defendant or a third party, to police and the DDA. (Also report to jail officials if the perpetrator is in custody.)

  • As soon as the case is assigned to a DDA, the victim should write a letter stating she wants to prosecute; she wants to testify; she doesn't want a plea bargain; and she wants to be consulted in advance of any deal offers being made to the defendant. Keep multiple copies of this letter.

  • The victim should always have a meeting with the DDA at least one day prior to her testifying in any court proceeding to make sure the prosecutor knows the facts of the case and to go over her testimony. This is to avoid the victim being put on the stand without any preparation by the D.A.'s office. Often the DDA will set the meeting for the day of the hearing, then be delayed and have no time to meet.

  • Never meet with the prosecutor alone; always take an advocate or support person as a witness. DDA's often get the victim alone to either give her false information or pressure her to make a decision. She needs someone with her who understands the system and can fight for her rights.

  • Before testifying, the victim should read over her police reports and any other statements she's made to police or at the preliminary hearing, in order to refresh her recollection.

  • Keep in close contact with the D.A.'s office regarding hearings and court dates; otherwise things can happen without your knowledge that later can't be undone (like plea bargains).

  • Watch out for plea bargain tricks!

  • The victim should take her time making decisions. If, for example, the DDA calls about a plea bargain they want to offer the defendant, she should not make a decision on the spot, but tell them she wants to think about it and will get back to them. Then she should get her advocate on the phone and talk it over. Once a deal is offered and accepted, it can't be undone.

  • After a conviction (either via plea bargain or a guilty verdict) the victim should encourage the DDA to submit a "statement in aggravation" for the judge's consideration prior to sentencing, giving the judge the reasons the perpetrator should get the "aggravated" (i.e., longest possible) sentence. The victim should give her input on this to the DDA.

  • Often when there is a conviction the judge will ask the probation department to prepare a sentencing report to help the judge decide what sentence to hand down. The victim should have a sit-down meeting with the probation officer conducting the investigation for that report. Be sure the investigator is aware of all the violence against this and any other victim, as well as the victim's state of fear for herself and her children.
When Things Aren't Going Right With Your Case:

(If time is short, you may need to skip some of these steps and go higher sooner.)

  • Contact the DDA assigned to the case. Try to find out what she/he needs to get the case on track. If that doesn't work:
  • Write a letter to the DDA, showing on the letter cc:'s to the supervising deputy (eg., the Chief Deputy D.A. in charge of the sexual assault team). In your letter, ask for a specific response date. If you still don't get what you want:
  • Call the supervising deputy D.A. and ask for a meeting to discuss the problems and inform her/him of what you want.
  • If that still doesn't work, write a letter to the District Attorney, with cc:'s to the supervising deputy, your county's governing body (i.e., Board of Supervisors), a local women's rights group, and the press.
IThe Courtroom Process

Whenever you're in the courtroom in support of a victim, here are some things you should familiarize yourself with and keep in mind while at the courthouse:

  • Don't put yourself under time pressure; it may be hours before your case is called. Allow yourself plenty of time so you aren't worrying yourself or the victim. If you don't know what courtroom your case is in, there is usually an information desk as you enter the courthouse or in the clerk's office.
  • Comply with any dress codes (eg., no shorts or tank tops) or you may not be allowed in the courtroom.
  • Most courthouses have metal detectors, so allow yourself extra time; leave pocket knives or scissors in your car.
  • Don't act out in the courtroom no matter how outraged you are. The judge can hold you in contempt of court or have you removed from the courtroom. Watch body language, facial expressions, etc.
  • The more support people the victim has with her the better, not only in terms of moral support for her but also as a deterrent to the perpetrator and his friends or family. Especially in situations where the judge will be making a ruling (i.e., sentencing, bail hearing, etc.) it can also be significant to the judge to see that she is not isolated.
  • Never Talk To Jurors during a trial. Never discuss a case within hearing distance of the jurors -- not in the hallway; not in the cafeteria -- nowhere. If a juror tries to start a conversation, politely say, "I'm sorry, I can't talk with you," and move away. Otherwise you may be faced with a defense attorney calling for a mistrial, claiming you influenced the jury.
  • Find out if the perpetrator is in custody or not. If the perpetrator is in custody, report to the bailiff any signs of his attempting to intimidate or communicate with the victim in the courtroom.

If the perpetrator is not in custody:

  • Ask the victim to point out the perpetrator and his family or friends who may be in court. Pay attention to who these people are and where they are in relation to yourself and the victim at all times.
  • Always be aware of where the perpetrator is. Position yourself physically between the victim and the perpetrator whenever possible.
  • Alert the bailiff and prosecutor immediately of any threatening or intimidating behavior.
  • Ask bailiff or D.A. investigator to accompany the victim to her car after court if needed.
  • Be aware of who was in the courtroom and who's around you when you walk to your car.

If the victim will be testifying:

  • Try to insulate her from unnecessary distraction. She needs to be able to concentrate her thoughts and energy.
  • She will not be able to be in the courtroom until called to testify. Wait with her in the hallway or in the D.A.'s office.
  • When she's testifying, support people should not sit directly behind the defendant so that she doesn't have to look at him when she wants to look at her supporters.
  • Also when she's testifying, don't nod or shake your head, or anything else that could be construed as coaching the witness.
IVictim Do's & Don'ts
  • Keep a folder with all the documents relating to your case in one place.
  • Never give away your only copy of anything; especially not to police or D.A.'s office.
  • Keep notes or an ongoing log of telephone or other incidents and all contact with police and district attorney officials, noting time, date, witnesses, etc.
  • Take your own time making decisions. Don't let anyone pressure you for an answer — if they want to pressure you, it's probably because what they want to do is not in your interest.
  • Give your input to the probation officer preparing the bail report. This will be very soon after the arrest -- within two days of arraignment. This can help determine whether he stays in custody or not, so can be critical to the victim's safety.
  • Look at the jury when testifying in a trial.
  • When you write letters of complaint, always show on the letter (cc:) that copies have been sent to superiors within that department (i.e., the police sergeant, the Chief Deputy D.A.); to at least one outside person or agency; to at least one women's group; and to the press if you want to take it that far.
  • When the defendant is convicted, the court usually orders a pre-sentencing report to be prepared by the probation department. The victim should request a sit-down meeting with the probation officer preparing that report rather than just input by telephone. Make sure they know everything about the history and the danger the perpetrator presents to the victim.
  • We always recommend that a victim make a statement at sentencing. If she doesn't want to read it herself, she can have someone read it in her place. We have seen this change a judge's sentence. It also gives the victim the sense that she did everything possible to protect herself.
IVictim's Rights

Victim's rights are spelled out in your state's penal code. The following are victim's rights under California law. These are pretty typical, but you should check your own state's code. In California, if you have any questions about your rights call 1-800-VICTIMS.

The victim has the right:

  • to a copy of the police report. She'll get the face sheet and her own statement; other witness statements will likely be withheld.
  • to the name and badge number of responding police officers, and the report number of the incident.
  • to a speedy trial in sex crimes, domestic violence and child abuse. Because of the nature of the trauma to the victim in these cases, the penal code states that these crimes are to be prioritized by the courts.
  • in a rape case to have the support person of her choice in the courtroom while she is testifying, even if that person will be a witness in the case.
  • in sexual assault and domestic violence cases, the victim has the right to have her advocate sit with her on the witness stand when she testifies.
  • to input into the probation department's pre-sentencing report.
  • to make a statement at sentencing.
  • to a copy of the probation pre-sentencing report if she requests it within 60 days after sentencing.
  • to have the defendant tested for AIDS and to receive the results of that AIDS test, in the case of sex crimes.
  • to ask the D.A. for a criminal protective order.
  • to advance knowledge of any plea bargain offer by the D.A.'s office.
  • to be advised when the perpetrator is released from custody.

If the perpetrator is sentenced to state prison, the victim has the right:

  • to know where he's housed.
  • to know if he dies in custody.
  • to know if he's transferred to another facility.
  • to have it made a condition of his parole that he have no contact with her or her family.
  • to ask that he be paroled 35 miles outside of the county where she lives.


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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