When you were running for Attorney General in 2012 and 2008, you focused an enormous amount of attention on the issue of sex offenders in our communities. At the time, I thought your language and attacks on Steve Bullock smacked of demagoguery, but now you have the opportunity to follow through in a meaningful way. I trust that, given your public commitment to making our communities safer, you will act to protect the people of Missoula County and investigate a broken County Attorney’s office.
It’s time for your Department of Justice to investigate Missoula County’s handling of sexual assault cases. Past time, actually, but given the release of the federal Department of Justice report, there can be no other course than a state investigation. When the county attorney in Missoula is unwilling to do his job and unwilling to protect the women under his jurisdiction, it’s incumbent on the Attorney General’s office to act.
There is no other way to read the DoJ report on the treatment of sexual assault by the Missoula County Attorney’s office than to conclude that it has failed to protect victims of sexual assault in Missoula County. Even worse, the Missoula County Attorney has revictimized women who have filed police reports and made victims even more reticent to pursue charges in the future.
The report from the Department of Justice reveals a series of harrowing anecdotes that reveal an office unable or unwilling to prosecute cases of sexual assault—including cases in which the offenders confessed their crimes to police. Women in Missoula County reporting sexual assault have been assaulted again—by a legal process that treats their claims as dishonest, disingenuous, and even immoral.
The report details an office locked in a 1970s mindset that holds victims of assault responsible for their attacks. An office that ignored sexual assaults on mentally ill victims, an office that asked victims why they didn’t fight back harder, and an office that excused the sexual assault of a child by arguing that “boys will be boys.”
The report shows that County Attorney officials:
- were hostile to women filing claims.
- often ignored the recommendations of the police to file charges against suspected rapists.
- dismissed claims of sexual assault as attempts at “revenge” or as mistaken.
- held the victims of sexual assault as responsible (or more) as their assailants.
- didn’t communicate, as the law requires, with victims of sexual assault.
- dismissed, discouraged, and debased those filing charges.
- discriminated against the women of Missoula County, violating their equal rights under the law.
Since the announcement of the Justice investigation, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate at all, braying in the press about federal intrusion and even cajoling the Missoula County Commission to turn over $50,000 to fund a lawsuit against the DoJ. Presented with the findings of the Department of Justice investigation, which included interviews with over 30 victims, Van Valkenburg simply retrenched, arguing that the claims in the report were “lies.”
That response should make it abundantly clear that the Missoula County Attorney will not reform its practices nor take the DoJ findings seriously. It’s time for the Attorney General’s office to act, Mr. Fox. It’s time for you to act.
You have the legal—and moral—authority to begin an investigation of the practices of the Missoula County Attorney’s office, and if your commitment to protect victims is genuine, you should announce your intention to investigate on Tuesday when his staff returns to the office.
The Attorney General’s office has “supervisory authority over the state’s 56 county attorneys” and the Missoula County office is in dire need of supervision—and investigation. The MCA says that one of the responsibilities of the Attorney General is to “ensure that victims and witnesses of crime receive fair and proper treatment in the criminal justice system.” It’s beyond dispute that victims of crime in Missoula are receiving neither fair nor proper treatment today.
It’s long past the time for Mr. Van Valkenburg and his office to face investigation and accountability for their actions. The failure of the Missoula County Attorney’s office to treat victims of sexual assault as the victims of crime they are has badly damaged the reputation of Missoula and called into question the safety of the community. It has reaffirmed sexist notions about the nature of sexual assault, and most importantly, it has failed to offer comfort and legal redress for the victims of sexual assault.
Missoula County has failed, Mr. Fox. It’s time for you to act.
(Please also read jhwygirl’s take over at 4and20blackbirds.)