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caption: A King County courtroom with socially distanced chairs for jurors. The pandemic slowed criminal trials and created a large backlog of cases.
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A King County courtroom with socially distanced chairs for jurors. The pandemic slowed criminal trials and created a large backlog of cases.
Credit: Amy Radil / KUOW

Mother of sexual assault victim says court backlogs have families holding their breath

If you are a victim of a sexual assault, it is typically very challenging to get a case through the court system. During the pandemic, it’s been especially tough, as many courts have been closed down and there is now a huge backlog of cases. Victims of sexual assault are often very young and advocates say these delays have been especially hard for them.

This is a story about sexual assault.

Reporter Amy Radil told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm the story of one mother who navigated a criminal case on her daughter’s behalf during the lockdown.

Amy Radil: We’re calling the mother by her initial “D.” And she agreed to share her story on condition of anonymity, because it concerns a really sensitive topic. D and her longtime partner lived in a suburb of Seattle. They have a daughter together. A couple of years ago when their daughter was five years old, she told D more than once that her father had molested her. The father, D’s partner, denied that. D says looking back it seems straightforward, but at the time she absolutely did not know who to believe or what to do.

D said, “I can’t explain how much it messes with your head when the two most important people in your life are telling you completely opposite stories.”

Kim Malcolm: What a painful revelation. What did D do?

Radil: She ultimately called a hotline for victims of sexual assault. And she says from there, they had legal advocates that really walked her through every step. They urged her to ask her partner to leave the house, which he did. He was arrested soon after, and he was charged with two counts of the rape of a child. These advocates helped D fill out the police report. They went to the court hearings and reported back to her – she actually never saw her partner face-to-face again after he left the house.

Her daughter gave an interview to investigators. But when the lockdown started last spring, the legal advocate told D that her case was on hold, indefinitely.

She said, “When the pandemic hit, she essentially told me, ‘don’t expect to hear from me for the next several months. Nothing’s going to happen at all.’ She didn’t even give me a date. She used to give me some date to look forward to.”

D says she was just mystified and frustrated.

Malcolm: So hers was one of many cases delayed by the pandemic.

Radil: Absolutely. The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center says their average case is still unresolved after more than a year and a half. Now, D was fortunate, her case actually did get resolved. She got that news a few months ago.

She said, “December of 2020 -- so like 13 months after the fact -- was when he finally pled guilty. And …[sigh] just realizing I had been holding my breath that whole time… and now I can take a breath.”

D’s partner was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.

Malcolm: So that’s a huge relief for her. How’s the family doing?

Radil: D says she and her daughter are doing well. She knows there may be milestones in her daughter’s life that bring these issues back up, but right now she’s in first grade and she’s thriving. D calls her a superhero for seeing this through.

“She saved us both," D said. "I’d still be in that horrible, toxic relationship if she hadn’t said something. So I’m pretty proud of her. I just feel so lucky. I love her so much. I’m just so grateful that I have her.”

D’s case is one where even with the pandemic delay, the court system worked for her. But everyone calls that an exceptional case: she got that relief that so many other people aren’t getting right now.

It’s worth remembering that even before the pandemic, a King County audit found that only 6% of reported sex crimes ended in a conviction. Advocates say they want these victims to be a high priority as the court looks to address these backlogs, the court is seeking funding to get through this backlog – even so it would take at least three years.

If you need help or advice about dealing with sexual assault, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center has a 24-hour hotline. That is 888-99-VOICE.