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Entering the Hunting Ground in a Hunter’s Paradise

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By Spencer Bowling, 2018 Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow at Legal Aid of Arkansas

Spencer Bowling & Coworkers
Photo of Spencer Bowling (middle) and colleagues

Author’s Note: For purposes of this post, I will focus on female victims use the pronoun “she,” although studies show that more than five percent of males are sexually assaulted while in college.

I suspect the mention of Arkansas rouses images of a John Grisham-esque sleepy street leading to a courthouse-dominated town square. You wouldn’t be wrong to see Arkansas this way, but this allegorical picture misses major parts of my home state’s identity. Also, I’ve yet to meet an attorney the likes of Matthew McConaughey à la A Time to Kill.

As an Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps (CVJC) Fellow at Legal Aid of Arkansas, my service area spans across the top half of the state—from the mountains of the Ozarks in the northwest to the rolling farmlands of the river valleys in the east. The geographic diversity echoes the cultures and identities of the eighteen universities and community colleges scattered between the mountains and valleys—the temporary homes of the college-age student victims I serve through my Fellowship. Or, as styled by the award-winning 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground, eighteen “hunting grounds” where one in five female students will be sexually assaulted.

A Hunter’s Paradise

Arkansas is no safe haven for victims of crime—not necessarily for a lack of established victims’ rights, but for a lack of attorneys to enforce them. Arkansas has the fewest attorneys per capita in the country, with one attorney for every 406 Arkansans. Consequently, the state’s twenty-five least populous counties are critically underserved, with one attorney for every 1,729 residents in those counties. There are counties in Arkansas with no lawyers at all. Two-thirds of adults in the state have experienced a civil legal problem in the past eighteen months, but only fourteen percent have made their way to a court, lawyer, or legal aid. And of those who do seek help, legal aid offices in Arkansas are forced to turn away more than half due to a lack of resources and attorneys—in other words, there is one legal aid attorney for every 14,957 eligible Arkansans.

Now, combine this culture of scarcity with the incredibly low reporting rates of sexual assault survivors—it’s a perfect storm, so to speak. There are very few attorneys to help victims hold their attacker accountable and, perhaps because of this deficit, victims do not know about their options or legal rights post-assault. For many Arkansans, calling an attorney after sexual violence is not an option they consider, especially if they are low-income.

A Fellow in the Mix

I do not know if Equal Justice Works had Arkansas in mind when it created the Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellowship program, but gosh, what a match. The goal of CVJC—to deliver civil legal assistance and enforce the rights of crime victims—seems superbly aligned with the needs of my small state.

Before I knew about CVJC, Legal Aid of Arkansas applied to host a Fellow that would specialize in representing victims of campus sexual assault. When I filled the position a short time later, I was bursting with optimism. It did not take long to realize this job was going to be harder than I originally contemplated. In hindsight, maybe it all comes back to the lack of reasonable access to legal representation—college-age victims are not immune to this disheartening reality.

Ultimately, I was trying to reach a demographic that Legal Aid of Arkansas has never before served, college students— a very specific group with unique challenges and emotions.

Based on the statistics (and local police reports), I knew students on campus were being sexually assaulted, but I could not figure out why I wasn’t hearing from them. This type of thinking was a major mistake when I entered this position: I assumed I could easily reach victims, and that they would feel comfortable with me and want help. It would be so straightforward! I was wrong—and for that, I cannot fault victims at all.

Thanks to Equal Justice Works and the National Crime Victim Law Institute, the CVJC Fellows have received invaluable training on how to enforce victims’ rights, how to communicate with survivors, and how to recognize different responses to trauma. A lecture on the Neurobiology of Trauma with Dr. Chris Wilson completely changed my perspective. You see, I was wrong in my approach—I expected victims to overcome their uncertainty and fear to come to me, to seek me out based on flyers, emails, and postings on websites.

First, it is important to remember that college-age survivors of sexual violence report at alarmingly low levels. Low reporting rates should come as no surprise, considering rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the country. Even when a survivor-victim makes that initial choice to disclose, the decisions that follow can be overwhelming: Who should I tell? Will anyone believe me? Will I be able to make my own decisions? Will I have to leave school? Will the person who assaulted me have an attorney?

When a survivor contemplates these questions, she needs access to someone who will believe her and will not force her to make unwanted decisions. She needs someone to talk with her about all the potential outcomes of three very different but interconnected paths: the criminal justice system, the university’s disciplinary process, and civil remedies. But, more than anything, she needs her freedom and her autonomy of choice—something that was taken from her when she was hurt.

I learned that for survivors, the decision to drive twenty-five minutes to my office, a law firm, probably had a degree of finality to it. They may or may not understand that my services are free of charge. They may not understand that they can talk to me without their parents, and that they don’t have to retain me to serve as their attorney. Those questions are intimidating for an eighteen-year-old, especially one recovering from trauma, and only amplify the existing roadblocks to obtaining legal assistance.

I had to change my approach. I needed to be accessible rather than another burden on survivors. I needed survivors to know that there are legal options available to them. I needed to enter the hunting ground.

The Sexual Assault Resources and Help Program

There was one major roadblock: I needed buy-in from the colleges and universities in my service area, which is easier said than done when you’re working on campus sexual assault. I was fortunate to find Dr. Mary A. Wyandt-Hiebert, the Director of the University of Arkansas’s STAR (Support, Training, Resources, and Advocacy) Central and RESPECT programs. I proposed an idea to Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert: I would come to campus once a week to meet with students, either on a walk-in or appointment basis, free-of-charge. I would provide confidential, general legal advice with information on next steps a victim could take if that was what she wanted. Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert liked the idea, and a partnership was formed. Before I knew it, we had a trauma-informed, dedicated space on campus, and we were recording podcasts to promote the new program. We’ve reached students who otherwise would not have come forward or sought out help.

That’s the beauty of the CVJC—the opportunity to reach that one person, that one additional victim who did not have anywhere to turn or anyone to call. Because in a state like Arkansas, just one new attorney can make a difference.

CVJC is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime, Award Number 2017-MU-MU-K131, and private funding. 

To learn more about Spencer and her Fellowship, view her profile.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow