The County Attorney’s Office in Missoula, Montana has institutionally failed sexual assault victims by “re-victimizing” them and often refusing to press charges, an investigation from the Department of Justice determined. The 20-page letter decries gender discrimination in the office of Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg for minimizing, degrading, and failing to pursue allegations of sexual asssault.
“The County Attorney’s Office routinely fails to engage in the most basic communication about its cases of sexual assault with law enforcement and advocacy partners,” reads part of a DOJ statement released Feb. 14.
Among the accusations in the letter are that a Deputy County Attorney opted to recite religious passages to a sexual assault victim. The report states that Missoula offers some of the most extensive mental health resources in Montana, yet prosecutors repeatedly declined to seek charges when mentally ill women had been assaulted.
Sexual assault cases are routinely minimized or simply ignored by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the letter argues. It cites a comment from Van Valkenburg that prosecutors handled such cases in their “spare time” and a pattern in his department of dismissing them due to “insufficient evidence” or “insufficient corroboration.” One of these cases included a woman who was raped while unconscious, but prosecutors did not pursue charges despite a confession from the accused man.
One woman reported receiving no justice after being gang-raped, and her experience with the prosecutor’s office was so traumatizing that it discouraged a friend from reporting her own rape. A county prosecutor allegedly told the mother of a five-year-old girl who had been molested by an adolescent that “boys will be boys,” when he was sentenced to only two years of community service.
In addition, the prosecutor’s office reportedly maintained little communication with victims. Prosecutors did not consult the Crime Victim Advocate’s office in sexual assault cases despite their immediate proximity to each other. A woman said that prosecutors did not speak with her for a year until offering her rapist a plea deal, which she did not approve.
Van Valkenburg, who resisted cooperation with the investigation, blasted the DOJ for infringing upon the jurisdiction of a local prosecutor’s office, according to Montana’s KAJ18.com:
They have apparently gotten some people who have said some things. Who knows? They don’t tell you who these people are. They don’t tell you when these comments, they could have been made 20 years ago for all I know.
In a January letter to Cotter, Van Valkenburg claimed that his office “has actively assisted victims for years,” citing collaboration with the Missoula Police Department and his prosecutors’ participation in training programs:
A number of attorneys in our office have already received specialized training in the area of sexual assault prosecutions. One of our more experienced attorneys has attended over twenty specialized trainings since she came to work in our office. While most of those trainings were not specifically on the subject of sexual assault prosecutions, some were and most were in the related areas of domestic violence and assaults on children.
He further argued that “the DOJ has presented no evidence whatsoever that our office has violated anyone’s civil rights.” The DOJ’s letter evaluated the attorney’s office by the standards of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the anti-discrimination provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and the Safe Streets Act of 1968. It determined that the office’s practices violated the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment and has also been investigating handling of sexual assault cases on the University of Montana campus.