Sexual assault victims in Yellowstone County will soon have a new team on their side.
A new Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, is in the works for Montana’s busiest judicial district with the aim of better serving victims of sexual assault. SARTs have been around for years but are cropping up more and more around the country as stakeholders recognize the model as a best practice.
Each SART functions differently, but most are comprised of medical staff, victim advocates, therapists, detectives and prosecutors. They meet regularly to improve coordination and communication, and to speed up referrals to victim services.
Those involved with SARTs across the country say the approach improves victim satisfaction with services, makes them feel safer and increases the rate of law enforcement reporting and criminal prosecution.
The SART being developed locally is aimed at eventually securing grant money to hire a coordinator for the team, a key piece in ensuring the SART is effective, experts say.
Such teams are needed, observers say, to provide a more unified approach to sexual assault. County Attorney Scott Twito said that at a recent meeting, a local nurse summed up the problem.
“(She) said, ‘Well, once I help the victim, I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how to hand off,’” Twito recalled.
Twito also said victims are often surprised to learn what the legal process looks like and how lengthy and traumatizing it can be, digging back into sensitive personal information.
“Because they have no clue,” he said. “They are on Mars when they come up and meet with us.”
The idea is to serve the best interests of the victim. But that’s not always prosecution, Twito said.
SARTs help identify community resources where they can refer victims for emotional support during invasive medical exams and help with temporary shelter, transportation, restitution and victims’ compensation claims. SARTs also try to coordinate interviews with the victim to reduce the number of times a victim has to retell their story.
Local stakeholders are still in the beginning stages of planning the new SART, with one meeting under their belt. That included representatives from the county attorney’s office, Billings Police Department, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, YWCA and medical professionals, among others.
The new group will be modeled, at least in part, after the state’s Child Advocacy Centers. These are teams of many of the same parties — law enforcement, prosecutors, mental health providers and medical professionals — who work together on child sex abuse cases.
Dustin Lensing, a detective sergeant at the Belgrade Police Department, has been involved with the Gallatin County SART for years.
“Back in the day it was like everyone stayed in their own lane,” he said. “And they didn’t interact as much. Services would either fall by the wayside or they’d be unnecessarily duplicated.”
As a cop, Lensing would write his report and send it to the county attorney’s office. That was pretty much it.
With the SART, which has been active in some form for roughly 15 years, everyone involved stays up to date on best practices, he said, and communication has improved.
“It’s a lot more efficient,” he said. “Nobody falls through the cracks.”