In Her Words May 2013: Lisa Madigan

As the first woman to serve as Illinois Attorney General, people often ask me to speak about what it means to be a ‘woman in power,’ and I always respond with the same answer: ‘Regardless of what we do, we all have a measure of power. Whatever our jobs, we each see situations every day where we can take action to ensure that we are making life better for other women and, ultimately, better for us all.’

As Attorney General, I have the opportunity and responsibility to confront problems in the justice system that for too long have been ignored or mishandled. One glaring issue is how survivors of sexual assault are assisted and supported in Illinois.

Sexual assaults in our country occur at an alarming rate. According to the Department of Justice, one in six women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. But, only about 40 percent of survivors ever report their rape to police. One reason why is because women don’t believe the crime will be taken seriously, and they don’t want to be re-victimized by the response they receive – from police, prosecutors, even doctors and nurses.

That’s a dangerous situation – not only for survivors, but for other women – because studies show upward of 70 percent of sexual predators reoffend.

The only way to reverse the disturbing statistics is to eliminate the reasons women don’t report rape. The better we respond to and care for survivors, the more we encourage others to come forward, and the more violent criminals we ultimately get out of our communities.

Of course, responding effectively to a survivor requires thoroughly investigating the crime. So I was horrified when Human Rights Watch Chicago Director Jobi Cates told me that over 4,000 rape kits in Illinois had not been submitted to the state’s crime lab. Not because of a ‘backlog,’ where kits were stalled in line waiting for testing, but instead because vital evidence collected after a sexual assault was left ignored, sitting on police department shelves. We responded by working with law enforcement to pass a law that makes Illinois the only state that mandates testing of all rape kits.

But while fixing one problem, you often find another. My office has long provided classroom training for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) to ensure that when someone goes to the emergency room after a rape, a specially trained nurse is on hand to care for the physical and psychological needs of the survivor while properly collecting and preserving physical evidence. In speaking with a group of SANEs about our rape kit testing success, I learned that despite my office’s hard work to train more than 1,300 SANEs, many were not allowed to practice due to a lack of support from their hospitals.

After contacting Maryjane Wurth, president/CEO, Illinois Hospital Association, we began working on a plan to ensure SANEs are available to sexual assault survivors across Illinois. We’ve gone from only a single hospital with a SANE available 24 hours a day to 24 hospitals committed to full SANE staffing. Our ultimate goal is to have a SANE nurse available to care for every sexual assault survivor in Illinois.

Both of these initiatives are important steps in our effort to make sure women seek help when they experience these terrible crimes and that their perpetrators are brought to justice. And they’re two examples of how, as women, we can use our individual power to protect and improve others’ lives. We all have a means to put our power to good use, and in fact, we have a responsibility to do so.