Complex and sensitive by their nature, sexual assault cases are among the most difficult undertaken by the justice system.
They involve a host of people from beginning to end, often reaching beyond police and prosecutors to include social service agencies and educators.
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And now for the first time, a Lake County group has crafted a blueprint outlining each step in the process and the responsibilities of everyone involved.
The Lake County Sexual Assault Council Protocol creates a uniform approach to handling sexual assault cases that is unique in the collar county area.
"It is useful because it informs, for example, police officers what a victim advocate can and cannot do during the investigation," said Wendy Ivy, a council member and director of outreach and community education for the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee.
"It will make things work more smoothly in that everyone will be on the same page and will result in more successful prosecutions," she said.
In developing the 131-page guide, the council brought together representatives from agencies throughout the entire spectrum to educate and be educated.
School officials, medical personnel and victim advocates joined police, prosecutors and probation officers to develop the guide.
"The council's approach was to get everyone involved in understanding what their responsibilities are and what the responsibilities of others in the process are," Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller said. "The result is a guide that shows the big picture -- how what is done at each individual step impacts on all the other people working for the same goal."
The first step toward a successful prosecution is the reporting of a sex crime, and the education community plays a large role in finding out what happened to whom.
Mike Nekritz, co-superintendent of Antioch-Lake Villa Area High School District 117, is the chairman of the council's education subcommittee and actively involved in the development of the protocol.
"A major factor in our role as educators involves making sure the children are comfortable with us and will understand that this is something that is safe to talk about," Nekritz said. "We want them to know that if something has happened to them or if something has happened to a friend, there is a process in place to help them, and we are part of that process."
Another crucial part is the collection of evidence, and no greater role is played in evidence collection than the medical community.
Jody Jesse, the director of emergency nursing at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, crafted the medical chapter of the protocol with an emphasis on sensitivity.
"No matter in what emergency room a victim may be present, we want to ensure that victim gets the same treatment," Jesse said. "There are standardized procedures for the collection of evidence, but it is also crucial that the victim must be shown compassion from the get-go."
Police agencies in Lake County come in various sizes, and a police representative to the council said the protocol is a boon to the smaller ones.
"The larger departments have detectives with special knowledge of sex case investigations, while the smaller ones do not," Lake Zurich Police Chief Pat Finlon said. "The protocol provides the smaller ones with a check list of the steps to take and where to go for help."
The protocol is a first step in a long process, those involved with its drafting said.
There will be a series of training sessions on its use for police officers in the months ahead, and Jesse intends to meet with representatives of other hospitals to discuss the document's application.
Nekritz said discussion sessions will be held with students in order to explore how not to become a victim and what to do if they are victimized.
Finlon said he believes the protocol is in the first of its many stages of development.
"I am sure there will be new things come up that we will want to include in the protocol as time goes by," he said. "It really is a living document."