Research finds rape victims often left to solve their own cases; what's being done to change that

Posted at 4:25 PM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 18:10:25-04

CLEVELAND — From untested rape kits to suspects taking plea deals, problems with investigating and prosecuting rape cases have been widely reported in Cleveland and around the country — in many cases, leaving victims to be their own advocates.

The Survivors

On July 16, 2015 — Sandi Fedor was a victim of a serial rapist.

“I kept feeling like it was my fault, I kept blaming myself for it,” Sandi said. “I had to have done something wrong for them not to get back to me.”

On May 17, 2017 — Alisa Alfaro was sexually assaulted by her neighbor and dog walker.

“It’s hard enough to come forward, don’t make it more difficult for us,” Alisa said.

Both women, both survivors, wanting to share their stories to inspire change and encourage action.

What happened to them should never happen to anyone.

“You had to fight for yourself, you had to get your own justice, what was that like?” News 5's Homa Bash asked Alisa.

“It’s time I should have spent healing myself but instead, it’s trying to push your case through, trying to get detectives to believe you so you can make it to the prosecution process,” Alisa said.

“They shouldn’t have had to do that,” said Sondra Miller, President and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. “They shouldn’t have had to tell their stories over and over again. They shouldn’t have had to fight to get the attention and energy of investigators.”

The Research

Case Western Reserve University

A report recently published by researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that in many, many instances — the burden to solve cases falls on the victims themselves.

Rachel Lovell and her team examined more than 700 cases involving previously untested rape kits from 1993 to 2011 in and around Cleveland.

“We wanted to look at where these cases stopped in the process and why they stopped in the process,” Lovell explained.

They found two predictors that pointed toward whether cases would get solved or not — if victims could identify their attackers, and if they remained cooperative during the investigation and prosecution.

“It’s really about cases falling through the bureaucratic cracks if these things don’t happen with the cases,” Lovell said.

In some instances, Lovell added, they found cases closed within days of the report.

She said she saw “victims having to go above and beyond to help find a suspect's name, to find phone numbers, to find addresses, to help gather evidence to help solve their own cases to give it to detectives."

The research points to several solutions:

First – comprehensive training for police and prosecutors to understand the impacts of trauma. For instance, how some victims may react with a lot of emotion or display no emotion at all.

They also suggest more oversight of police departments – requiring an audit of cases to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. This is something that is being done in other states like Washington through recent legislation.

The Changes

“My message to victims is that we are fighting for you,” said Mary Weston, who heads up the cold case unit at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.

Mary Weston, who heads up the cold case unit at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, speaks to News 5's Homa Bash.

Weston said it’s important to acknowledge issues of years past, particularly in Cleveland’s sex crimes unit, but is hopeful for the changes in recent months and years.

“The training is one thing I have seen that is different, and is more widely available and taken advantage of,” Weston said.

Alongside that training, the prosecutor’s office:

• has hired a crime analyst to detect patterns and trends in cases
• received funding to review all CPD sex crime cases for a second look
• is hoping to solve cases through commercial genealogy testing.

Victim’s advocates are also working to keep victims more informed of their cases, and the process.

“Prosecutors get involved earlier, victim advocates are involved earlier, detectives receive training on how to even go about questioning a victim about telling the officer what happened to her or him,” Weston said.

Cleveland Police told News 5 the following changes have been made:

• They are a part of the task force referred to in the research and have been a part of revisiting older cases. They also partner with several agencies in order to have a multi-disciplinary approach to investigations.

• At this time, every single sexual assault kit that is taken into evidence by CPD is sent in for DNA testing.

• They continually seek training for detectives on best practices for trauma-informed investigations

A rape kit being tested for DNA.

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center does offer sexual assault trauma training to police departments — telling us only a fraction of departments in Northeast Ohio have opted to receive it.

The Impact

“It is the most underreported crime and it’s important for us to shed the shame of being a victim,” Alisa said.

For Alisa and Sandi, their stories and their strength are saviors for so many others.

Alisa’s attacker is serving 16 years in prison.

Sandi’s — a repeat offender who attacked again after she reported her rape — is serving 18 years.

“I feel better for the streets of Cleveland, I feel better for people in the streets of Cleveland that they can walk around without worrying him on the streets, but he’s just one," Sandi said.