CEDAR FALLS — Hannah Hatfield didn’t tell Waterloo police she was sexually assaulted until four years afterwards.
“I never could accept that I was raped and that it really happened,” she said.
She thought she knew what sexual assault was supposed to look like — something clear-cut and obvious, like on “Law and Order: SVU” — and that’s not what hers looked like.
“And if it’s not like those, then it doesn’t really count or it’s not really as bad as it could have been,” Hatfield said. “I think I’ve always told myself that if I just didn’t think about it and I just kept moving forward, it would all go away.”
But it didn’t. It nagged at her until she finally called Waterloo police in January 2015, thinking she’d finally get closure and justice for what was done to her.
But she didn’t. Her case was shuffled around the department, she said, and several phone calls and emails went unanswered. On Feb. 18, 2015, she got the final word: Nothing could be done.
“I still blame myself for waiting so long, but I remembered everything still,” she said.
Hatfield, like the other women in this article, first chose to go public with their stories of justice denied on a widely shared public Facebook post by Chloe Cumberland. Cumberland repeated her own story of sexual assault to The Courier, KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids and to members of the Iowa Senate during a public discussion of a bill that would expand no-contact orders to include victims of sexual assault. (Cumberland backed out of The Courier’s story shortly before press time and said it was because her case was reopened.)
Cumberland said in the public Facebook post Jan. 24 she was frustrated that, in her words, “the Cedar Falls Police Department wiped their hands clean of me and pushed my assault under the rug.” As of Friday, the post had been shared more than 2,200 times with more than 300 comments.
Hatfield was one of several who replied to Cumberland’s post, echoing her plight.
“Chloe is a perfect example of why it doesn’t matter if I waited,” Hatfield said in a Courier interview.
Hatfield and three other women agreed to publicly share their stories of sexual assault in the Cedar Valley to The Courier, which would otherwise not name victims of sexual assault.
Nearly one in five women in the U.S., and 1 in 59 men, have reported being the victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control. Nearly 79 percent of those women were raped before the age of 25.
In Iowa, it’s estimated 198,000 women were raped at least once in their lifetime, according to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
Mandy Lundberg said she went to file a police report the day after an assault in June 2005. Her case was dropped, she said, because Cedar Falls police told her it was her word against his. But later, the police department enlisted her help as a witness in a different sexual assault case against the same man.
Lundberg said she felt brushed off by officers who repeatedly asked her “what I was wearing and what he was wearing,” and said she had hoped law enforcement would have fixed that “empathy” issue more than a decade later. Cumberland’s Facebook post, she said, showed others were still getting that treatment.
“I was surprised that this is apparently not the case, and this is such a pervasive issue over the years,” she said.
Brian Williams winces when he hears those stories. As Black Hawk County attorney, he’s tasked with deciding which criminal cases to prosecute based on the evidence available.
“I can’t envision a situation when we didn’t believe a victim,” Williams said. “But our ethical obligation is to ensure we can convince a fact finder” — namely, a judge or a jury.
Williams said his office is “very serious” about prosecuting sexual assaults, and there is a dedicated prosecutor for those cases as well as a victim witness coordinator. He said they “devote substantial amounts of time and energy” to sexual assault cases “because it’s the right and just thing to do.”
His office prosecuted eight individuals for sex offenses among adults — which Iowa law defines as 16 or older — in 2016. Three were prosecuted in 2015 and three in 2014.
“There are certainly going to be outliers where there’s simply not enough evidence,” Williams said. “We can only proceed if we believe we can convince beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Complicating things is the fact evidence has to be ready to go before investigators charge an attacker, said Cedar Falls Public Safety Director and Police Chief Jeff Olson.
“Once you make a charge, there’s some clocks that start ticking,” he said.
For example, to give someone their constitutional right to a speedy trial means filing evidence within 40 days of charging them with a crime. But what if getting phone records or clothing analysis back from the lab takes longer than that?
“When you have those real serious cases when you may send clothing to the state lab, if they’re 30 to 40 days behind, we may lose it,” Olson said. “That’s why it could be weeks or months — we’ve got to have our ducks in a row before we file charges.”
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Some women say that’s not communicated to them by police or the county attorney.
Stephanie Norris went to the hospital for a sexual assault kit right after an attack in the fall of 2009. She wasn’t aware getting a kit done meant automatic notification of the police, but trusted Cedar Falls police to get justice for her.
“I thought they were going to be extremely involved, since they pulled up the guy’s Facebook profile and took his phone number down,” she said.
But that one police interview was the last she ever heard about it.
“They told me my particular case probably wouldn’t hold up in court,” Norris said. “They never told me I could press charges, and so I never knew how.”
As a practicing attorney, Emily Bartekoske has more knowledge of the criminal justice system than most. But even she felt lost in the legal shuffle when she reported her March 2014 rape.
“I said, ‘I’m willing to testify, I’m willing to do what I need to do,’” Bartekoske remembered telling the Black Hawk County Attorney’s Office. “’I’m an attorney, I’m a professional, I have no criminal record, he has a criminal record, he doesn’t have a job. I’ll make a good witness. Please move forward with this.’”
Bartekoske said she was told because police didn’t collect enough evidence, and because she was going to therapy, a jury wouldn’t return a guilty verdict.
“The way I was treated was 10 times worse than the rape itself,” she said. “I’m an attorney, I believe the justice system is supposed to work for victims. That’s not how the system was intended to work.”
Williams, the county attorney, said one big problem is juries believe a sexual assault victim is supposed to behave a certain way. A jury likely doesn’t understand, for instance, why someone who is in a domestic abuse situation would forgive or go back to their abuser.
“We understand that, law enforcement understands that, advocates understand that, but the general public doesn’t understand that,” Williams said. “Sexual assaults are the same way — they might do unusual things, there might be a delay in reporting.”
He cautioned that while those things can cast doubt on a victim in the eyes of a jury, it doesn’t mean they’re not telling the truth.
“There’s certainly an explanation for why a person would act the way they do: They’ve just been victimized. They’re going through a lot and endured so much,” he said.
Help and hope
More tools are at law enforcement’s disposal should they choose to use them, including text messages, Facebook posts and other public and private messages between the two parties, said Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka. Officers also are trained on occasion by victim advocacy organizations on how to make people more comfortable in the interview room.
But his office is still tasked with weeding out false accusations, he said, like teenagers making up a lie for why they stayed out past curfew, or others “trying to cover their tracks of infidelity.”
“These are tough cases — tough and sad,” Trelka said. “The biggest thing in my mind is not to re-victimize them. Support is so important.”
That support can be found at places like Riverview Center, a 25-year-old Northeast Iowa nonprofit with four locations that counsels those who have been sexually assaulted at no charge.
“Our main roles are to believe everything a survivor says from the beginning,” said Kaylee Michelson, an advocate with Riverview Center in Waterloo.
Advocates are generally the only ones allowed to sit in with people in a police interview, and they’re the on-call organization when someone comes to an area hospital for a rape kit, she said.
Not every victim is interested in taking their case to court, Michelson said — some just want to process what happened and be done with it. For those who do want to press charges, Michelson said police should understand most come by that decision carefully.
“Oftentimes it’s hard for a survivor to talk about something so personal — people in general (do not) go around talking about their sex lives,” she said.
Advocacy organizations understand officers’ dilemma, said Ben Brustkern, executive director at Cedar Valley Friends of the Family.
“I know they do their best to work with what’s given,” he said. “It seems to be one of those very frustrating things to determine how do we investigate, how do we know what to charge, how do we best service the victim? Part of that might be how the criminal justice system is set up — that starts to create some barriers.”
He said there is room for improvement between law enforcement and organizations like his, and said it’s made more difficult when all involved are “strapped for time and dollars.”
“I don’t think that our local community is immune to the same challenges that we see across the country when it comes to prosecution of sex assault,” Brustkern said. “The best thing we can continue to do is to believe the victim, continue to support them and — in the end — hope justice is served.”