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Sex assault survivors must undergo background check before services

The policy, titled “AFAC Safety and Security Plan,” states that “the client, and all those accompanying the client, will provide a name and date of birth for a background check in the NMJustice.org database.” It further states, “in cases where the client refuses to produce identifying information, the client will be directed to the appropriate off-site agency to seek the requested services.”

The policy was created in 2007, but has only been actively enforced since November.

The problem is that AFAC provides services that cannot be found elsewhere for victims of sexual assault or rape, such as medical investigations and DNA analysis, and many feel that a background check may cause victims to refuse or hesitate to come forward.

AFAC works with on-site agencies like Resources Inc. and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner to offer services including physical examinations, prescriptions for emergency contraceptives, counseling or referrals to additional outside services.

Communications and Community Outreach Director for APD Celina Espinoza said that while the policy was enacted by AFAC’s board and is not an APD policy, APD does feel it is important for safety.

“We want to ensure the center is a safe, secure place for everyone to receive vital help and services,” she said. “Staff are checking for existing restraining orders to ensure victims’ safety, for prior domestic violence-related charges, and for violent felonies. The resulting information is not stored by anyone or anywhere; this is to ensure the safety of everyone involved. No one is denied services.”

Mark, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was gang-raped in 2005. He reported his assault immediately after, but said he would not have done so had a background check been required.

“That is one of the more twisted things I’ve heard in a really long time. When somebody has been assaulted at that level, who are they to say somebody in trauma is dangerous?” he said. “The whole process of reporting is so deeply humiliating as it is: dealing with the police, dealing with the hospital staff, dealing with the SANE unit. Throwing more bullshit into it is just going to make it so much harder for people to say anything — I certainly wouldn’t have.”

Mark also pointed out that any sort of background check could produce records available during a court proceeding.

Espinoza defended the policy, and said AFAC is not the only agency with such a requirement.

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“Centers across the country, which provide the same essential resources, have very similar policies,” Espinoza said.

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez is executive director at Enlace Comunitario, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to eliminate domestic violence in the Latino immigrant community through prevention and intervention services.”

Lopez said she is very worried about the effect this policy will have on sexual assault victims who are immigrants.

“I respect the concern for safety; I worry about the safety of my staff. I totally respect that, but I have to make it comfortable for my clients too. You have to find a balance,” Lopez said. “Immigrants often don’t trust authority anyway, and this puts another barrier to their access to services in the area of sexual assault and domestic violence.”

Adding metal detectors, which are already used in courthouses and other government facilities, is one way the facility could improve security without being invasive to the people who seek assistance there, Lopez said.

“The background check is just, I mean — if the idea of the center is to be as open as possible, this isn’t consistent with that,” Lopez said. “I just believe we should make it as easy as possible for clients to get services.”

The background check information is passed on to the agency representative or caseworker, and “if the client and those accompanying the client are cleared to seek service ... all existing visitor protocol and confidentiality agreements for the presumed victim remain in effect,” the policy states.

Enlace provides its clients with a wide variety of services, including language classes, legal assistance and counseling, Lopez said. For some of the services that Enlace can’t provide, they rely on the assistance of the AFAC

“I think the Family Advocacy Center is a great idea because it’s a one-stop shop for services,” she said. “After people have experienced a sexual assault or domestic violence, that’s not what they’re thinking about: all the services they need. It’s nice to be able to bring them all together and provide referrals and everything right there.”

Ashley, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she thinks many people, not just immigrants, will be less likely to come forward about sexual assault because of this policy.

“Unless they are absolutely perfect, they will fear that they will not be believed. There is already such a stigma associated with being a victim of sexual assault that people choose to ignore it rather than to accept that it happened,” she said. “A rape kit after having been through an assault is already like being re-victimized. Why would you want to do that to someone?”

Caseworkers at Enlace make their clients aware of the background check done at AFAC and assure them that they will receive services even if they are undocumented or have an arrest record.

The criteria the background search looks for are: outstanding felony warrants, existing temporary restraining orders, prior charges for domestic violence, violent felonies and drug or weapons offenses, according to the policy.

But there is a catch. The document states, “APD will be made aware of the existence of any outstanding felony warrant by any visitor to the AFAC. APD will determine the best approach to addressing that situation.” This has caused even those with misdemeanor charges or late bill payments to be suspicious and hesitant to come forward, said Anahi Rincon, case manager at Enlace.

Rincon said a client called last Monday in need of a restraining order, but was worried about seeking services at AFAC because of some past-due bills and was “very afraid.”

One of the most at-risk groups for intimidation by the policy are prostitutes, due to their lifestyles and the likelihood of prior arrests or outstanding warrants, Lopez said. They also may be the most at-risk and in need of services.

Figures vary, but ProstitutionResearch.com conducted a study in which researchers found that 60 to 75 percent of prostitutes reported being raped and 70 to 95 percent reported being physically assaulted.

Lopez said AFAC has long shared a property with the local APD substation, which already made many clients hesitant to go there.

AFAC also offers medical services, and some wonder if the new policy violates HIPPA or interferes with patient confidentiality, in addition to discriminating against those who may have a record but still need help, Lopez said.

“People who have violent histories, including warrants, arrests, and convictions, are not likely going to be violent or aggressive with people they are turning to for help,” said May Sagbakken, executive director at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico. “What other medical facility in our community requires a background check?”

The intent of RCCCNM is to support the AFAC vision, mission and goals, she said. However, Sagbakken and others at RCCCNM are concerned that the required background check is a detriment to the original intent of AFAC.

“The background check is also a violation of a core principle of Rape Crisis services, which is the victim’s right to confidentiality,” Sagbakken said. “Anything that might make a person feel less safe, more blamed or more uncertain will make them that much less likely to report the crime against them and make themselves available for evidence collection.”

The focus of AFAC is to decrease victim trauma and intimidation, she said.

Sagbakken and Lopez both understand the importance of collaboration between their organizations, AFAC and the APD. They feel that there is a solution that can work for everyone, and said that the end result is worth the effort.

“When I see a woman’s face when she first comes in and then I see that same (woman) when she walks out — she realizes she is not alone and she does have support. It’s amazing,” Lopez said. “It’s just really amazing.”

Matthew Reisen is a staff reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com, or on Twitter @DailyLobo.

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