Collecting evidence poses challenge for COC officials responding to sexual assaults

by Mauricio La Plante 0

Preserving and collecting physical evidence of a sexual assault as soon as possible is essential to build a case that will hold up in court, experts say.

However, Santa Clarita lacks a facility with the staff and tools necessary to collect such delicate forensic evidence.

“There’s no medical rape kit kind of place up here in Santa Clarita, so they do have to go all the way down to Van Nuys,” said Larry Schallert, the assistant director for COC’s Health and Wellness Center.

Located more than 20 miles from COC’s Valencia campus, and about 25 miles away from the Canyon Country campus, the Center for Assault Treatment Services (CATS) in Van Nuys, is the closest facility to Santa Clarita with the tools to collect evidence of a sexual assault.

“It’s a very comprehensive program, Schallert said.

They have great interviewing rooms and cameras for documentation, he added.

Two COC students were arrested for separate rape incidents last month, one on campus and one off.

Statistics from the 2014 to 2015 academic year show four cases of forcible sex offenses reported to COC’s administration.

Equipped with tools to collect the most delicate traces of a perpetrator’s DNA left on a victim’s body, CATS’ counselors are specially trained to engage in recorded testimony for the police to use as evidence.

“A lot of victims are taken to general hospitals, especially when their injuries are very severe,” said Joni Novosel, who works at CATS and serves as the director of the Center for Healthier Communities.

Novosel receives cases from the Santa Clarita Valley and has worked with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on incidents outside of city limits.

“All nurses and doctors are trained, but not with specialized training to be considered a forensic nurse examiner or a certified SANE, which are nurses and physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners whose main focus is sexual assault.”

“It’s not like a regular doctor’s exam,” Novosel explained, adding that staff at the facility are trained in collecting even the smallest amounts of forensic evidence.

“Sometimes the clothing a victim wears has evidence on it,” she said.

Along with collection of DNA evidence, staff from CATS can go to hospitals to conduct forensic interviews, but most often work with victims referred to them by the police.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives assigned to sex crimes and domestic violence cases are stationed at the facility, which allows them access to victim and witness testimony. This facilitates the building of a case.

They record each interview from victims of sexual to minimize variation in their statements.

“The last thing we want to have happen is for this poor girl to be telling her statement like ten times,” said LAPD Detective Timothy Wolleck.

The veteran policeman works on domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

We want to minimize that because every time she gives her statement there’s going to be a little variation, and the defense can use that to say she’s not being truthful,” Wolleck said.

The detective said the prompt collection of evidence is essential to prevent losing it or breaking chain of custody.

“The second people brush their teeth, or take a shower, all that evidence is gone,” Wolleck said.

COC’s Schallert noted the main obstacle toward ensuring proper evidence collection is not necessarily the distance from CATS, but if a victim does not want to report the crime or the perpetrator to local law enforcement.

Without a report, few options are left for documentation.

“We don’t have a choice because then we can’t get them a rape kit,” Schallert said.

“There’s all kinds of things we can’t do for them.”

But, Schallert added, facilities can still collect certain evidence, even if victims don’t report the crime to local law enforcement.

“We try to recommend that even if they don’t want to report to the sheriff, that within 72 hours they get a rape kit going,” the assistant director said.

“When it comes to forensic evidence we ask them to keep their clothes in a brown paper bag, not to shower,” he said.

As long as someone preserves the evidence, it can still be used to build a future case, even if a victim does not want to report to the police right away.

Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), victims can allow professionals to collect evidence and record their testimony without involving the police.

A document from the department of justice lists that “under the Violence Against Women Act of 2005, states must certify, as a condition of receiving STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant Program funds, that victims are not required to participate in the criminal justice system or cooperate with law enforcement in order to receive a forensic exam.”

Novosel explained that CATS can hold evidence for up to two years, until the victim is ready to report the incident to law enforcement.

“If you have been assaulted, and you’re just not ready to disclose … get a medical exam, do the forensic interview, get the DNA,” she said.

Much of the evidence is held for at least two years and police can still use evidence in that timeframe, if the victim does not want to report immediately, Novosel explained.

“If you don’t do anything after two years, then all the evidence is thrown out,” the director said.

She added without the evidence, a case may not even make it to court.

“A lot of times when we can’t get enough evidence, if a (district attorney) won’t try (the case), that means that someone may hurt again.” Novosel said.

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