Clayton County SART: What it is and how it serves victims of sexual assault

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


A recent proclamation declaring April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) by Elkader Mayor Josh Pope brought renewed focus on an important issue that impacts not just the nation, but Clayton County as well. The idea behind devoting an entire month to the issue began in the early 2000s, when the National Sexual Violence Resource Center started working with state coalitions to start a campaign that shed light on the prevalence of sexual assault. 


“Looking at the history of the movement to end sexual violence, it’s clear why SAAM was created: It’s impossible to prevent an issue no one knows about, and it’s difficult to make people aware of a problem without providing a solution,” said Brent Ostrander, criminal investigator with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. 


But when the month is over, and the spotlight is gone, it is programs such as the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) that started in Clayton County in 2015 that will continue to take care of victims. 


According to Ostrander, SART is a “professional multi-discipline team aimed at providing a victim-centered service to victims of sexual violence.” 


What it provides is a bevy of services to victims of sexual assault, including but not limited to, a law enforcement response, sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), prosecution and advocacy and therapy. SART also utilizes the services of the Child Protective Center at Allen Hospital in Waterloo for forensic interview and medical examinations, working jointly with the Iowa Department of Human Services. 


As far as the empathetic, victim-centered approach, it’s simply a means of making the experience post-assault less traumatic than the event itself and works at a pace that is comfortable for the victim, giving them control over outcomes. 


“The mission of SART is to counter the experience of sexual assault with a sensitive and competent victim-centered multidisciplinary response, to support efforts to restore the victim’s well-being and to bring responsible persons to justice,” Ostrander added. 


What makes SART necessary to the region? In Ostrander’s view, it’s the sensitive nature of the crimes, which make them difficult to discuss, understand and respond to. 


“Quite often, the disclosure of a sensitive crime starts with a trusted family member or friend.  It’s necessary for people to understand the effects of trauma and the appropriate way to respond.  The path to emotional healing usually starts with the community member before it reaches the appropriate professional discipline. Bringing awareness and understanding to an uncomfortable topic helps prepare everyone for the proper response,” Ostrander said.


Of course, Ostrander isn’t the only advocate of the program. Elkader Police Chief and SART team member Mitch Seitz is as well, describing SART as an “invaluable resource.” 


It’s a resource made up of individuals who are dedicated and committed to their mission. SART is ready to meet the needs of the victims when they are ready to talk about them. 


Seitz also sees the added benefit SART has of changing the way policing is done when it concerns sexual assault, displacing the traditional method of just enforcing the law without empathy, instead turning more toward a comprehensive approach that focuses on the impact the sexual assault had on everyone involved. 


“Looking at who, how and why a particular crime impacts people is a much better approach than that of traditional policing. I’m proud of the SART team and we can all learn from their leadership,” Seitz said. 


However, there is another reason for SART’s existence, and it’s because Clayton County is not immune to sexual assaults. According to Ostrander, Clayton County is comparable to other rural counties in terms of cases reported, which fluctuates from year-to-year, but on average is between 14 and 16 sexual abuse cases per year. 


But this doesn’t account for the four in five victims who don’t disclose the assault. This lack of reporting is a reason for SART’s existence. As part of its mission, SART promotes services that educate victims and affords them a trusted resource they can disclose the sexual abuse to without fear or negative impacts. 


“The work they do actually makes a meaningful impact…they work responsibly to protect all innocent parties. It’s really amazing,” Seitz said. 


One thing that is concerning for Ostrander is the increase in cases involving teenagers, specifically as it relates to child exploitation and the dissemination of obscene materials to a minor. 


“The cyber world and unlimited phone apps make it difficult to investigate.  The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office has recently purchased and certified a deputy to conduct forensic examinations of cellular devices,” Ostrander said. 


Beyond this, there is the controversial issue of what to report when it comes to sexual assault cases, which is something both Seitz and Ostrander acknowledge is a difficult balance because it concerns both the public’s knowledge of dangers within the community and the victim’s need for privacy. SART’s own policy is to not provide press releases on arrests of persons charged with a sex offense. There is a lengthy reason for this, which Ostrander shared. 


“We do so with a purpose. We do not want to be responsible for the victim to be traumatized over and over by the picture of the offender posted or printed in every news outlet. We respect our local news and want to cooperate, but do not see a benefit in subjecting the person who courageously came forward, trusting us with their information, to the constant reminder of the event. We hope this article can help community members to understand this decision,” he stated. 


Ostrander is not alone in this view, as Seitz declared, “I don’t think it helps the situation as much as we once thought, and it can actually be very counter-productive. Obviously, if there was an ongoing risk, we’d inform the public, but otherwise, the less the survivor is reminded, the better.” 


As April and Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, the SART members said it’s important to remember that sexual assaults will not end, nor will SART’s need to serve, provide for and protect victims. 

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