The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Mistaking Coordination for Change: Sexual Assault Response Teams

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 2:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Carrie A. Moylan, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Binghamton, Binghamton, NY
Background/Purpose:  Since the violence against women movement gained traction in the latter half of the 20th century, one of the primary focuses of anti-sexual violence advocates has been on improving the criminal justice system response to crimes of rape, for example by reducing victim-blaming and increasing rates of prosecution and conviction (Martin, 2005).  Most recently, communities have started adopting coordinated, multidisciplinary models of service delivery known as Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) in hopes that improved collaboration between victim-serving agencies, law enforcement, health care and other service providers will improve services and outcomes for victim/survivors. This study uses an institutional theory lens (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983) to explore the processes by which SARTs are positioned as legitimate within the larger organization field, and uncovers practices that “decouple” the spirit of SART from its implementation on the ground.

Method:  Using a qualitative and interpretive approach, this analysis drew on semi-structured interviews with 24 professionals, including law enforcement officers, forensic nurses, and rape crisis advocates.  The sample represents 11 states and 13 SARTs, and includes 11 experts who provide state or national training and technical assistance.  Interview transcripts were analyzed using an iterative within case and cross-case analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994) and discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2003).

Results:  Analysis revealed an underlying tension between two concurrent and competing processes regarding the adoption of multi-professional, coordinated models of service delivery for sexual assault victims.  One process served to legitimate SARTs by deliberately drawing on a discourse that centers a moral imperative to improve services for sexual assault victims.  Coordination between service sectors was then positioned as the primary means of operationalizing this imperative.  Simultaneously, providers within these core service delivery systems resisted the moral imperative and the mandate of coordination.  The result of this resistance was the decoupling of the behavior of responders on the frontlines from the idealized structure and victim-centered philosophy of service delivery that is associated with the SART model.  The consequence of these competing processes is that communities appeared to be addressing the lingering problems of unjust systematic responses to rape by adopting a coordinated model on a surface level, while the larger problems of victim blaming and injustice continued to be perpetuated at the street level.

Implications:  This study contributes to a larger dialogue about the over-reliance on criminalization and partnership with the criminal justice system as both a means and a goal of the violence against women movement. This analysis suggests that advocates may be successful in securing coordination with law enforcement and other helping systems through a SART model, but that coordination may only be “skin deep.” The danger of a surface-level adoption of SART is that communities may believe they have cutting-edge services, while victims continue to receive the same unjust treatment and response from helping systems.