In November of 2014, when Abby Honold was a junior at the University of Minnesota, the unthinkable happened: She was raped.
As soon as she could escape her rapist, Honold reported the sexual assault to police and went to the hospital.
But if it weren’t for the sexual assault nurse who was on call that day, Honold said she doesn’t think her case would have ever seen prosecution.
“When I was interviewed by police, I didn’t get a lot of information out. I kind of froze.”
And based on national statistics, that could have been the case. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which is an anti-sexual violence organization, compiled national data and found that out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will not go to jail.
That, however, was not the case for Honold’s rapist, Daniel Drill-Mellum, who is currently serving a six-year prison sentence.
Now, Honold is working on federal legislation to help other sexual assault survivors who seek justice. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX), introduced the Abby Honold Act in December of 2017.
If passed, the bill would allocate funding for a two-year program aimed at training law enforcement agencies nationwide to use trauma-informed interview techniques when responding to sexual assault cases.
Honold’s interview with police versus the forensic nurse
“When I was interviewed by police, I didn’t get a lot of information out,” Honold said. “I kind of froze.”
Honold said the detective assigned to her case would get really frustrated with her if she remembered details out of order.
“I almost didn’t want to have a rape kit done because he [the detective] had told me that with the information I’d told him, that there was nothing that they could do and nothing was going to happen,” Honold explained. “So I didn’t really feel motivated to keep talking.”
But a few minutes after she spoke to the detective, a nurse who was trained in FETI, or the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, came in to speak with her. The FETI technique was developed by Russell Strand when he was serving as the chief of behavioral sciences in the education training division for the Army Military Police School.
Instead of asking who, what, when, where and why questions, the nurse asked Honold questions aimed at trying to understand what the 19-year-old was able to remember about the traumatic experience.
“She asked me, what did I smell, what did I hear, what did I taste,” Honold explained. “And she never cut me off, she just let me talk.”
Honold said the nurse was able to not only document her physical injuries but also get information that she wasn’t comfortable sharing with police.
“If the nurse who’d come in had not been so welcoming and kind, and had asked things in a way that made sense to me at the time, it’s hard to know what ever would have happened with my case,” Honold said.
How the brain works during traumatic events
Strand explained that the prefrontal cortex, or the decision-making, action-taking, critical-thinking part of the brain shuts down during high-stress or traumatic events.
He described how the brain works during a traumatic event, using a puzzle analogy.
“When we put together a puzzle, the first thing we do is we look at the picture and we select that puzzle [piece] that we want to work on by the picture,” Strand said. “Then, we dump out all the pieces and then we sort them through.”
But in reality, Strand explained that putting together pieces of the puzzle after a traumatic event isn’t so cut and dry.
“Instead of taking a puzzle, dumping out all the pieces and then looking at the picture, what happens is basically it’s a fistful of pieces during that tragic event, and they’re thrown in the air, they fall all over us, and some of them are upside down, some of them are right side up, and then the puzzle box gets thrown away,” Strand said. “We never get to see the picture.”
Strand said sexual assault survivors like Honold never get to see some of the puzzle pieces and oftentimes can’t describe the traumatic event from beginning to end without leaving out pieces or remembering details out of order.
Myra Ferechil, who is the co-founder of Strand Holistic Innovative Forensic Techniques (SHIFT) LLC, added that asking a survivor who, what, when, where questions about a traumatic event means they are no longer “in charge of the story.”
“We’re determining what’s important and that’s totally and completely backward,” she said. “We want them to write their own story, so we have to create a platform for them to be able to tell us their story in a way that they think is important because it’s their experience.”
The first step to creating a platform for the survivor to tell his or her story, she explained, is to create a comfortable and safe environment. Then, Strand added it’s important to listen, let the person talk without interruption and pause when the person is done talking.
Ferechil said by understanding how to ask survivors about their traumatic experience, investigators are “actually giving them a platform and helping them become more empowered.”
“It’s helping them rebuild the experience,” she said. “It’s helping them bring that memory back and create a sequence. The whole experience kind of comes back to them in a way that the who, what, where, why, when questions cannot give them.”
Honold said the fact that her nurse used the FETI technique made a huge difference in her case.
“She [the nurse] wrote down 18 pages of my account and I worried later on, when we were preparing for trial, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if there were things I didn’t say in my interview,'” Honold said. “And I went back and I looked at her report, and it was all there.”
Honold was the first of Drill-Mellum’s victims to report him. Ultimately, four survivors came forward, but he was only charged in two cases.
Now, Honold said she hopes this new legislation can help others find justice.
If passed, the Abby Honold Act would set up a two-year program through the Department of Justice that’s aimed at training law enforcement officers nationwide in trauma-informed interview techniques like FETI.
Now, in addition to working on federal legislation, Honold also speaks at high schools, colleges and training groups across Minnesota.
“It feels amazing to be able to talk to people who are going through something, whether it was years and years and years ago, or very recently,” Honold said. “A lot of people who send me messages have never told anybody before and so I’m honored to be that person and to be able to help connect them to resources that can help.”