There Are Best Practices for Interviewing Those Who Report Sex Crimes—and Thursday's Senate Hearing Followed None of Them

An expert on how to best investigate sex crimes responds to Christine Blasey Ford's testimony.
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Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault in 1982, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 27th, 2018.

Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault in 1982, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 27th, 2018.

If you're feeling unsettled by Thursday's Senate hearing on Christine Blasey Ford's sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—you're not alone. Experts in the field are weirded out too.

"I really have never seen anything like today," says Kristina Rose, executive director of End Violence Against Women International. The hearing went against everything End Violence Against Women International, a non-profit whose sole purpose is to provide affordable training to police departments on how to best investigate sex crimes, teaches. It was not designed to provide a comfortable, safe environment for Ford, nor to elicit the best information from her.

Immediately after Ford finished her testimony, I spoke with Rose to get her read on the proceedings and what the Senate could have done better.

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What did you think of the questioning Christine Blasey Ford underwent today?

Given that she was being questioned by a professional sex crimes prosecutor, it gave the appearance that she was on trial. The Senate is not a courtroom and this is not a trial. There has been no investigation. So this hearing, today, was not an appropriate venue for collecting and gathering comprehensive information that could inform an investigation of sexual assault.

What would you have wanted to see happen instead of this hearing?

In a perfect world, there would be a full and thorough investigation, based on a report to the police. In this particular case, there was the opportunity for an investigation by the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] to gather information and that was not done.

This hearing. I'm sorry I'm struggling with my words, but I really have never seen anything like today. It just didn't seem fair to question a sexual assault survivor about a crime that was committed against her, in this kind of a setting.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said committee Republicans attempted other ways of investigating Ford's claims before today, but were turned down by either Democrats on the committee, or Ford's counsel. For example, he says his staff offered to fly to California to interview Ford. Do you think Grassley's procedure would have been a good alternative to an FBI investigation?

I don't want to comment directly on what Senator Grassley or the Republicans wanted to do. It really just comes down to the fact that, if the goal is to gather the best information and evidence, that the fact-finding process should follow the recommended policies and practices that have been established around a good, trauma-informed, sexual assault investigation.

What are those recommended practices?

We subscribe to a philosophy called Start by Believing. What that means is—instead of starting with skepticism or starting by thinking that the person who was victimized is lying—starting with believing, and then moving into a full and thorough investigation. You want to make sure that you are going to be conducting an investigation that is impartial, that is based on the facts.

The reason you start by believing is because sexual assault victims are going to be more likely to participate, as a partner in the fact-finding process, if they feel they are being respected and believed. When they receive a negative response, they immediately shut down. They probably won't seek any help, either, so it's doubly bad.

When a sexual assault victim reports to the police, they are also provided with a victim advocate. A victim advocate is somebody who can help explain the system to them. That is a best practice.

There's a one-on-one interview of the victim. What we saw today was most certainly not a one-on-one interview in a safe, supportive environment.

Some senators, such as Dianne Feinstein (D-California), have argued that this wasn't supposed to be a trial—judging whether this crime occurred—but a sort of character test or job interview for Kavanaugh. If this wasn't a trial, then do your best practices not apply?

You hear people saying that, that this was not a trial; it was a job interview. But what a very special set of circumstances here, where you are asking someone, who had been the victim of a traumatic event, to tell her story in front of the world, publicly, for the first time. There are ways to do that that are responsible and do not re-victimize the victim and this was not that.

I give her a lot of credit, though. I thought she was absolutely amazing, given the considerable pressure and stress that she was put under. I really feel badly that this was how she had to go about telling her story.

I think it would have been better if they had, maybe, a closed hearing. This going back and forth between a sex-crimes prosecutor questioning for the Republicans, and then the Democratic senators questioning themselves, seemed very awkward, and the line of questioning from the prosecutor, not surprisingly, sounded very much like we were in a courtroom.

What made prosecutor Rachel Mitchell's questioning like a courtroom?

I'm not a prosecutor [but] I've been a victim advocate before and I've sat through many court hearings. Asking questions about very specific behaviors and movements and trying to establish a timeframe and questioning: Who is paying for the polygraph? Who selected the lawyers? That was very trial-like.

What did you think of the Democratic senators' line of questioning?

They did a really good job with their questions. They asked more open-ended questions. They weren't accusatory. They were very supportive of her. A number of them stated up front, "I believe you."

Does your Start by Believing philosophy work for someone who is lying about their assault allegations?

It does. By supporting that person and allowing them to feel comfortable and talk about what happened to them, it all just leads to a much better investigative process, so that you can get to the truth much more easily. If that person is not telling the truth, you're able to get to it quicker than if they were shut down, didn't want to talk, and didn't want to participate.

Do you think this hearing was successful at getting at the truth?

I can't say that yet because it's not over. I believe Dr. Ford. The way she talks about what happened to her is so much like the experience of so many other sexual assault survivors. The fact that she delayed her report by so many years—she was ashamed. The fact that she didn't talk to anyone about it and then that trauma really caught up with her and caused her problems into her adulthood and marriage.

Do you think this hearing will have a big effect on the way Americans think about sexual assault?

I do. I think that there are going to be people, who have been sexually assaulted and pushed it away, that may, as a result of seeing her, come forward. I think seeing her there, so visibly showing that courage, can be very inspirational to people.

How about how Americans treat allegations of sexual assault?

I hope so. I hope that, not just congressional members, but friends and families of anyone who chooses to disclose, that they will respond in a way that is supportive (with referrals for help), doesn't shut her down, doesn't blame her, doesn't accuse her of lying. Especially young women and men, they're much more likely to tell a friend or a family member than they are to go to police or to a school official. So you want roommates, friends, family members, coworkers—you want everyone to be prepared to start by believing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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