New Anchorage facility designed to support new, collaborative methods for responding to sexual violence

Keely Olson, Executive Director of Standing Together Against Rape, and the organization’s office in Anchorage, December, 2019 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes)

On an industrial patch of Midtown Anchorage, sits a brand new building designed to help people at one of the worst moments in their lives.

Last April, the low-slung facility quietly opened. It’s unveiling wasn’t exactly a secret, but there was little fanfare, given its mission.

It was built to better handle sexual assault investigations, part of efforts to change the policies for handling violent sexual crime. For years now, law enforcement and non-profits in Anchorage have been collaborating closely on measures that put the needs of victims and survivors at the center of how the state responds to sexual assaults. The new multidisciplinary center is the physical realization of that approach.

“It’s very private, the windows are all frosted, and people can’t see in,” said Lt. Shaun Henry inside his office, from which he commands APD’s teams handling sex crimes against children and adults.

His police staff is just one of the groups housed in a $12.4 million facility — financed primarily by the Providence Alaska Foundation with support from other medical and philanthropic groups — to improve how sexual assault and abuse victims are treated. In addition to APD’s Special Victims, Crimes Against Children, and Cyber Crimes units, the building is also home to Providence Medical Center’s forensic nursing program and an outpatient clinic handling child sex abuse, as well as a small detachment of Alaska State Troopers. Though there is a mix of tenants, their purpose is the same.

“The goal is to reduce further trauma for the victims,” Henry said.

For more than a decade, APD and its partners in Anchorage have been refining a Sexual Assualt Response Team model. The idea is to bring all the resources a person might need after an assault under one roof: Police investigators, medical professionals, counselors and advocates.

“By having all those resources in one building we can minimize the number of encounters they need, because a lot of people don’t really want to come back for more interviews,” Henry said. “We do it all at once. We can have the nurses here, we can do the interviews, we can collect evidence. And that really does help out the victim in minimizing further trauma.”

Over the last few decades, the SART model has become the preferred standard among many police departments and advocacy groups. Historically, a victim would report a crime, then have multiple interviews and appointments spread over days or weeks, generally in different places, and often with the onus for follow-up on them.

According to Henry and others, this was bad for a lot of reasons, the main one being that in the wake of an assault, repeatedly recounting the incident can re-traumatize a person. Under the SART model, having one detailed initial interview with a victim gives detectives information to investigate, with nurses and advocates on-hand to hear the same account and respond accordingly.

“Having them only have to tell their story in the detail that is needed for an investigation to occur, for that to only happen once and to not be subjected to having to meet with multiple people or travel around is ideal,” said Keely Olson, Executive Director of the non-profit Standing Together Against Rape, an advocacy group serving victims and survivors of sexual violence.

When an assault is reported and the SART team activated, STAR is one of the groups that sends someone to assist the victim in whatever way they need, whether that’s deciding to press charges, finding safe housing, or following up later on in the healing process. According to Olson, the multidisciplinary center is a tangible step toward the victim-centered approach stakeholders in Anchorage have been moving closer to for years.

“We have individual suites, we have a waiting room, we have more space,” Olson said. “It’s not hospital focused, it’s a very private, confidential location where people can go for this service.”

There are plenty of other measures to make the facility feel safe. The walls are covered in art, and on the side of the facility built to handle crimes against children, there are rooms with toys and video games. Stakeholders don’t like to advertise where the building is located, to further protect victim privacy. You need a key card to get through just about every door.

“There was a lot of thought put into the building,” Lieutenant Henry said.

APD began moving toward a SART model around 2007, when it rented a separate facility that did the same thing: housed detectives, nurses and advocates in one place. But it was always a temporary arrangement, and the new multidisciplinary center’s development was spurred in part by the old landlord not renewing the contract.

One of the other major reasons law enforcement and advocates nationwide prefer the SART model is that it helps build better legal cases. According to Olson, years of seeing criminal charges fall apart taught advocacy groups that conducting multiple interviews with victims created inconsistencies that defense attorneys could successfully exploit at trial. Likewise, Henry says it helps his staff better approach complicated cases.

APD’s arrest rate in adult sex crimes cases is around 15 percent. The number can seem low, but is significantly higher than the national standard, which Henry said is “four to five percent.” Figures from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, citing recent federal data, put the number of reports that lead to an arrest at 4.6 percent.

During a six month period last year, according to Henry, there were 660 cases handled by the SART team, 250 of which were ultimately assigned to SVU detectives. That doesn’t include crimes against children, handled separately.

In the last few years, reports of sexual assault have been steadily going up, something Henry attributes to more tools for people to report when something’s happened, and better coordination among non-profits, hospitals, schools and law enforcement.

Across Alaska, there are now 17 SART teams, almost all of them in regional hubs scattered all over the state.