Addressing Unsubmitted Sexual Assault Kits and Reforming Processes Going Forward: Burnout and Vicarious Trauma Among Staff Working the Cases

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Burnout and vicarious trauma continue to be high priority topics in healthcare and law enforcement research, but there is a sizeable deficit within the literature among professions working directly with sexual assault cases. Generally, burnout and vicarious trauma among specific professions within the justice system including attorneys, victim advocates, and sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) have been significantly understudied. Additionally, reforms are currently underway to address the problem of unsubmitted sexual assault kits stored in warehouses across the United States. However, implications for the employees have not been studied by researchers to understand potential consequences in working with these cases nor the added stress of reforms.

Secondary qualitative analysis was conducted using data from a sample of interviews with key informants (n=135) who are victim-facing and involved in processes to address both unsubmitted sexual assault kits and current cases of sexual assault. Informants were more likely to focus on facilitators and challenges in their daily work than to discuss the outcomes of burnout and vicarious trauma. Insufficient access to resources and increased workloads were the most significant challenges discussed among key informants, although, emotional labor and other difficult aspects of the job were also a common theme throughout this population. Social support including support across agencies, as well as supervisory support, were the most discussed potential protective factors of burnout. This study contributes information regarding key challenges faced by individuals working on sexual assault cases and has direct implications for employees in the field as well as those undergoing reform on sexual assault kit processing. These findings should be used to understand potential contributors to burnout and vicarious trauma in order to better mitigate negative outcomes associated with this work.