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‘We have to do better’: In Utah, a fraction of sexual assault survivors actually see justice

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‘We have to do better’: In Utah, a fraction of sexual assault survivors actually see justice

Apr 02, 2024 | 7:08 pm ET
By Kyle Dunphey
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‘We have to do better’: In Utah, a fraction of sexual assault survivors actually see justice
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The Salt Lake County District Attorney building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

A fraction of the women sexually assaulted in Utah will actually see criminal charges filed against their perpetrator.  

On average, 88 out of every 100 Utah women who fall victim to sexual assault will not report to law enforcement. For the 12 that do, half of them will see their cases stall and ultimately fall off due to attrition, which is when a case fails to progress through the criminal justice system, sometimes because of procedural errors. 

Of those six remaining survivors, prosecutors will likely file charges in four of the cases, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. 

“Out of 100 victims, four get access to that measure of accountability and justice. We have to do better than that,” Gill said on Monday during a media event marking the start of sexual assault awareness month. 

Resources for sexual violence victims

If you have experienced sexual violence, call Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-801-736-4356. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free and confidential counseling. The following local resources are also available: 

  • Rape Recovery Center: 801-467-7282
  • Rape & Sexual Assault Crisis Line: 1-888-421-1100
  • YWCA Survivor Services 24-hour crisis line: 1-801-537-8600
  • University of Utah Center For Student Wellness Victim-Survivor Advocacy: 1-801-581-7776
  • Linea de Apoyo de Violencia Sexual las 24-Horas de Utah: 1-801-924-0860

One woman’s story

Erin Van Berkel is one of those few women whose abuser was prosecuted. Speaking during the news conference, she said if her injuries didn’t require medical attention, her rape would have gone unreported. 

“I didn’t have a choice to come forward. I had to go to the hospital because I was bleeding so much. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do so otherwise, it was incredibly scary,” Van Berkel said. 

Even after arriving at the hospital with an injury that required stitches, Van Berkel said she still doubted whether she was a victim of sexual assault. It took describing the incident to a nurse, who promptly called police, for her to realize she was raped. 

She urged survivors of similar incidents to come forward, describing her experience with the Salt Lake City-based Rape Recovery Center, which provides survivors with case management, victim advocacy, therapy and other resources. 

“I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this without them … having these resources helps me feel sane,” she said. 

Sexual violence awareness month

This April, Salt Lake County is launching a public awareness campaign trying to break the stigma around reporting sexual violence. Much of the burden falls on officials like Gill, who said years of harmful law enforcement practices make survivors feel unsafe. 

“We’re also learning the historical ways our investigations actually undermine what we are trying to achieve, which is to respect and listen and give voice to survivors. There’s no wonder historically why they don’t feel comfortable coming forward,” Gill said, comparing the law enforcement-survivor interaction to a cross examination during a trial. 

“We would approach it by saying, ‘what were you wearing? What were you doing? What was your level of intoxication?’” he said. 

In the last year, prosecutors in Utah filed about 3,200 sexual assault charges. Utah’s most populated county, Salt Lake, sees an outsized portion of these crimes, with about 1,200 filed by Gill’s office in that same timeframe. 

According to data from the district attorney’s office, 104 of the state’s 276 rape charges were filed in Salt Lake County. Over half of the aggravated sexual assault and sodomy upon a child charges filed statewide came out of Salt Lake. 

“In the most conservative way, that only represents 10% to 20%. That’s 70% to 80% that did not report,” Gill said. “What kind of a society and culture are we creating, where survivors do not feel safe to be able to come forward and share that trauma?”