DOJ: Missoula County attorney's response to sexual assaults puts all women at risk

2014-02-14T18:18:00Z 2014-07-10T12:45:04Z DOJ: Missoula County attorney's response to sexual assaults puts all women at riskBy Kim Briggeman Missoulian The Billings Gazette
February 14, 2014 6:18 pm  • 

MISSOULA — Missoula County prosecutors said “terrible things” to victims of sexual assault, told a mother whose 5-year-old daughter had been assaulted by an adolescent that “boys will be boys,” and told another woman “all you want is revenge,” in discussing a decision not to prosecute her sexual assault.

Those were all part of a “disturbing pattern” of deficiencies in the handling of sexual assault cases by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office that place the safety of all women in Missoula at risk, a strongly worded statement from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said.

Late Friday afternoon, the DOJ released a long-awaited 20-page report on its investigation into the handling of sexual assault cases by County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and his office.

The report came three days after Van Valkenburg filed a motion asking a U.S. District Court judge to decide whether the Justice Department has jurisdiction over his office. His motion was supported by Missoula County commissioners, who approved releasing $50,000 from the county’s general fund to fight what Van Valkenburg sees as unprecedented interference by the DOJ.

His office appeared caught by surprise by the release of the report Friday.

Van Valkenburg was out and will be until Feb. 26, according to a receptionist who said no one else in the office is authorized to comment.

In a statement that accompanied the Justice Department’s report, Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said practices by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office “strongly suggest gender discrimination.”

To wit, she said:

Sexual assaults of adult women in Missoula are given low priority by the county attorney’s office.

Van Valkenburg doesn’t provide adequate knowledge or training to deputy county attorneys to effectively and impartially investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases.

The county attorney’s office, on its own or in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, “generally does not develop evidence in support of sexual assault prosecutions.”

Adult women victims are often treated with disrespect, kept uninformed of case status and are “revictimized by the process.”

And Van Valkenburg’s office fails on a routine basis “to engage in the most basic communication about its cases of sexual assault with law enforcement and advocacy partners.”

The DOJ in May 2012 opened investigations of the Missoula County Attorney’s office, the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana’s Office of Public Safety based on allegations that the agencies were “systematically failing to protect women victims of sexual assault in Missoula,” the department’s statement said.

Missoula police and UM cooperated, and their investigations were resolved last May. They have since made “important strides” in improving their responses to sexual assault and strengthening community confidence in local police, said Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for the District of Montana.

“It is our sincere hope that the Missoula County attorney will follow that example and work cooperatively with the Justice Department to address the deficiencies identified in our investigation, and to improve the safety of women in this community,” Cotter said.

One of Van Valkenburg’s beefs with the DOJ was that it withheld the results of its investigation into his office even as it proposed a settlement agreement in December. That plan entailed his office hiring internal investigators and a victim advocate, and designating county prosecutors who would focus on sexual assault.

Van Valkenburg argued the DOJ had never provided proof that his department discriminated against victims of sexual assault and violated civil rights.

“The DOJ apparently feels that it has no duty whatsoever to set out its evidence of alleged civil rights violations and simply expects our office will bend to its will,” he wrote in a letter that rejected the DOJ’s proposed settlement, citing in part a cost to the county of $300,000 and $400,000.

The evidence the department set out Friday was damning.

In one instance, a deputy county attorney quoted religious passages to a woman who reported a sexual assault, passages that the woman interpreted to mean she was being judged negatively for having made the report.

When asked by a woman whose 5-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted by an adolescent boy why the boy had received a sentence of only two years of community service, “the prosecutor handling the case reportedly told the woman that ‘boys will be boys.’ ”

“One woman described her interaction with a deputy county attorney as ‘traumatic,’ ” the report said.

Another said that by the time the prosecution was over she was so frustrated by her treatment by a deputy county attorney and the office’s failure to keep her informed about key developments “that she ‘would never suggest’ that another woman pursue a sexual assault prosecution in Missoula,” investigators reported.

They said they were told the county attorney’s office “almost never solicits the involvement of the crime victim advocate office with its complaining witnesses in cases of sexual assault.”

The report maintains that public comments by Van Valkenburg raise concerns of “impermissible gender bias.” It cited his comment that prosecutors review charging decisions in sexual assault cases “when they have spare time.”

“While you have subsequently attempted to explain that by ‘spare time’ you were referring to the ‘additional time’ after other courtroom and litigation functions have been completed, the statement seems inconsistent with the diligent investigation and prosecution of sexual abuse,” the report said.

The DOJ investigation was executed by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section. It included 13 days of personal interviews and telephone conversations over a year and a half.

Investigators spoke with more than 30 women or their representatives who were reportedly victimized by sexual assault in Missoula, as well as a former sex crimes prosecutor in the county attorney’s office and former Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, who retired at the end of 2013.

Also interviewed were nine police detectives; officers and representatives of 12 local, statewide and university organizations that work on behalf of women and sexual assault victims; and two expert consultants, one with years of experience supervising a police department’s sex-crimes unit and the other a former prosecutor and national training consultant in sexual assault response.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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