Years into her job as a sex crimes prosecutor, Jaclyn Jenkins is still not always sure what the right answer is.
Umatilla County’s lead deputy district attorney has worked with hundreds of victims and their families, but contends there is no formula for dealing with cases.
Sitting in her office, Jenkins looked at the notes and drawings from victims she’s worked with over the years that hang on her wall.
“Each of those cases, I can tell you about my victims,” she said. “It can’t just be a case. You are asking them to do so much.”
Jenkins, who has worked for the Umatilla County DA’s office since 2009, has handled sex crimes cases since 2014.
She said in the past few years she has seen an increase in the number of cases the office has prosecuted.
“I feel like when I started, my caseload was a lot more mixed with violent crime of a non-sexual nature,” she said.
She said she suspects part of the reason for the increase is more people are coming forward.
“Which is excellent,” she said. “We are talking about it now, it’s not something to hide.”
Since November 2016, she has prosecuted 106 sex crime cases, but that number does not include sexual harassment. The majority of victims she works with, she said, are under 16 years old.
In the crime statistics that Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston presented to the city earlier this month, he noted that the number of reported rapes in the city had increased, and was up to six for 2018, through the third quarter.
Edmiston said that number doesn’t include other types of sexual assault or abuse.
The victim and perpetrator almost always know each other somehow, he said.
“Generally, defendants in my cases are: boyfriend, dad, grandpa, uncle, babysitter,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said while she may hear a victim’s case, it’s not always viable for prosecution — and she doesn’t always want to put a victim through a trial.
“The hardest thing to say is, ‘I absolutely believe you, but I can’t prosecute your case because there’s not enough evidence,’” she said. “I don’t think it’s right to prosecute a case if there’s not a chance it’ll get resolved. They’ll get torn apart by a defense attorney who’s doing their job.”
Still, she said, she reminds victims that the outcome of the case doesn’t erase what happened to them.
“Let’s say we charge it, and (the defendant) gets 200 years, which has happened,” she said. “That doesn’t make it OK. That’s what I tell my victims when we start — there is no amount of time that will make you feel vindicated.”
She said she leaves the door open in case they want to pursue it later, but won’t push a victim if they’re not comfortable going forward.
“This system is not made for victims,” she said. “This is a system designed to protect defendants.”
Edmiston said it can be an uphill battle even if a victim does want to proceed.
“The worst thing that can happen is, somebody makes the decision to report, and the system lets them down,” he said.
Hermiston Police Department Lt. Randy Studebaker, who oversees investigations, said most of the incidents they pursue aren’t reported immediately.
“They usually report days, weeks, months, years later,” he said.
He recalled a case from a few years ago. A girl had been sexually abused in Hermiston when she was 9 or 10, and then moved away. Twenty years passed. Then, her abuser, who had also left town, was arrested in Texas for a crime against another child. At that time, he made reference to an incident in Hermiston.
“We did a ton of work and matched him with the victim,” Studebaker said. “We were within days of the statute of limitations running out, but we found her. She still hadn’t told anybody.”
The only common thread with these crimes, he said, is that people don’t report them, or delay reporting.
“We’re chasing history with a lot of these,” he said.
One of the tools in prosecuting rape cases is a SAFE, or Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence, kit. Oregon State Police announced a few weeks ago that they had recently completed processing a two-year backlog of SAFE kits. Evidence collected from the exam can help determine whether the DNA of a rape or sexual assault suspect is present.
Geoffrey Bock, an analyst with the state forensic lab, told the East Oregonian that between November 2016 and November 2018, the OSP Forensic Services division had received 67 SAFE kits from Umatilla County law enforcement agencies.
Jenkins said the kits are only sometimes useful.
“So often, it comes down to what a SAFE kit can’t prove,” she said. “If there was force, if there was a lack of consent.”
The kits are useful if a suspect denies ever having contact with a victim. They can also help connect suspects to a sex crime from an unrelated incident. If someone is arrested for a felony, they have to get a swab done, and those results can lead to a connection with another crime.
“It creates the possibility of helping other victims, because sometimes they don’t know who assaulted them,” Jenkins said. “Or little kids who can’t vocalize yet — which unfortunately we have.”
Susan Stephens, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Good Shepherd Medical Center, said the hospital completed 17 sexual assault examinations in 2017, and the same number in 2018 so far. Of those, she said, they collected SAFE kits on 15, and gave three to law enforcement, keeping the victim anonymous.
Stephens said evidence can be collected up to five days, or 168 hours, after an assault.
She said nurses will sometimes be subpoenaed to testify on a sexual assault case, and some of Good Shepherd’s sexual assault nurse examiners have done so. But she said all those cases have been settled out of court.
Jenkins said there is no typical method by which victims report sex crimes. Often it will be reported by someone else, like a family member or teacher. Studebaker estimated that the number of sex crimes reported is likely between 10 and 30 percent of the number that actually take place.
Many resources for sexual assault survivors both locally and statewide are focusing more on encouraging victims to report. A group of Good Shepherd nurses, including Stephens, recently brought the Start By Believing campaign to the hospital, which encourages people to respond to reports of sexual assault with acceptance instead of skepticism, to encourage people to report more. Studebaker said the “You Have Options” program, started by a detective in Ashland, works with law enforcement to help them focus their investigations on the actions of offenders, while promoting a safe environment for victims to come forward. The program, he said, gives the victim as much control as possible with the case — including if and when they want to pursue it.
Jenkins said while many victims do want to pursue a case, there’s a lot of preparation for all involved — gearing up the victim and family for what’s about to happen.
“I have to ask parents who’ve already had their trust betrayed, to trust me. They have to let me walk into the room with their little kid.”
It takes time to develop a relationship with the victim.
She recalled the times where she’s had young victims who don’t want to talk.
“I won’t force them,” she said. “If they just want someone to sit and color with them for an hour, then that’s what we do.”
She said she’s been amazed by the strength of some victims — as well as understanding of those who may not be strong enough to go through a trial.
She remembered one teenage victim who shocked her.
“She came in and said, ‘I Googled you,’” Jenkins said, laughing. The teen mentioned an article she had found, where Jenkins had relayed an embarrassing story, and asked her about it. “She said, ‘I want to know who I’m working with!”Resources
The impact of a sex crime case is uniquely damaging to all involved, Jenkins said.
“There’s a lot of blame, guilt,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, the mom will say, ‘I should have seen this coming.’”
Even when choosing a jury, Jenkins said, she has noticed that many people will be disqualified for their proximity to a similar crime — many have a friend or relative who’ve gone through some sort of abuse, but she said almost always, someone in the room has been a victim themselves.
There are resources locally for victims, including the Sexual Assault Response Teams in Umatilla and Morrow counties. Those teams are comprised of nurses, victim advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges, and assist victims of sexual assault.
The DA’s office provides victim advocates, and gives victims information to seek counseling if they choose to.
Edmiston said he feels the field doesn’t provide enough resources for professionals who deal with sex crimes.
“I think we’re remiss in making sure our own people, across the country and across the profession, are physically and mentally healthy,” he said.
Jenkins said developing a balance between work and life is important — when she first started the job, she said she worked seven days a week. Now, she’s better about making time to think about and do other things.
She enjoys running, hiking, and spending time with loved ones. She teaches and takes Zumba classes.
“I try to give every case all that I can, and try to be there for my victims in whatever capacity I can be,” she said. “My victims deserve that, and because I don’t think I could sleep otherwise.”
Still, she said, she’s had to acknowledge that cases will not always get the outcome she wants for victims.
“I’ve come to realize there are some things I cannot fix, some issues (legal or factual) that are insurmountable, and some hurts that can only be healed by time.”