WHAT IS START BY BELIEVING?
Start by Believing is a public awareness and action campaign designed by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) to end the cycle of silence and change the way we respond to sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and child sexual abuse. Since its initial launch in 2011, thousands of people around the world have made their own personal commitment to Start by Believing.
Yet Start by Believing is more than just a personal pledge. It encourages individuals, organizations, and communities to communicate the critical message to survivors: “We hear you, we support you, and we will Start by Believing.”
Equally important, Start by Believing equips communities to respond competently and compassionately to survivors and their loved ones. In other words, Start by Believing is not just a set of words, or a personal pledge that individuals can take. A Start by Believing program can help community organizations translate the philosophy into victim-centered and trauma-informed policies, protocols, and everyday practices. For more information, please read our brief history of the campaign.
WHY DO WE NEED START BY BELIEVING?
Decades of research demonstrate that victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and child sexual abuse are often doubted or blamed, and these negative responses have many harmful effects. Negative responses also decrease the likelihood that victims will report the crime and reach out for help.
This is why the message of Start by Believing is so vital ‒ outcomes will only change when survivors receive supportive responses to their disclosures. “When you tell us you’ve been hurt, we will believe you. We will get you the help you need. We will help you seek justice.”
For more information on the rationale for Start by Believing, please see our training bulletin, Improving Responses to Sexual Assault Disclosures: Both Informal and Formal Support Providers. This resource reviews the research on sexual assault disclosures and the responses survivors receive, then examines public awareness campaigns to prevent sexual assault and improve responses, including Start by Believing.
What is the impact on survivors?
When someone has been sexually assaulted, abused, or stalked, they often turn first to family members or friends for help. If the response to their disclosure is disbelief or blame, this can increase the survivor’s trauma and decrease the likelihood that they will report to law enforcement or seek other services, such as medical care.
On the other hand, victims who are treated with respect and whose accounts are taken seriously will often feel more comfortable reporting or seeking additional help. The two specific behaviors that seem to have the most benefit are simply having someone to talk to and being believed, which are foundations of a Start by Believing approach.
For more information and supporting research, please see our training bulletin, Improving Responses to Sexual Assault Disclosures: Both Informal and Formal Support Providers. This resource reviews the research on sexual assault disclosures and the responses survivors receive, then examines public awareness campaigns to prevent sexual assault and improve responses, including Start by Believing.
Is there evidence for impact?
Start by Believing is based on research documenting how to respond effectively to sexual assault disclosures. While evaluation of the campaign’s impact is preliminary, the initial data is encouraging. For example, after launching a city-wide campaign in Kansas City, the local rape crisis center noted a dramatic increase in the number of hospital callouts, and the police department saw an increase in reports of sexual assault. Two other communities also saw an increase in the number of sexual assault reports in the wake of their local campaigns: San Luis Obispo, California and Arizona State University.
For more information please see our training bulletin, Improving Responses to Sexual Assault Disclosures: Both Informal and Formal Support Providers. This resource reviews the research on sexual assault disclosures and the responses survivors receive, then examines public awareness campaigns to prevent sexual assault and improve responses, including Start by Believing.
HOW DO I LAUNCH A CAMPAIGN?
Where to start? By making your own personal commitment to Start by Believing.
Then get others on board. It’s important to bring a diverse group of community leaders to the table to achieve success. Key players often include: law enforcement, victim advocates, health care providers, prosecutors, and social service agencies. You may also consider bringing in local colleges or universities, military installations, tribal governments, local businesses, and more. Also consider reaching out to policy leaders, including your Mayor, County Administrators, state legislators, etc.
Then when it’s time to launch your campaign, we have all the tools you need. Our Campaign Toolkit offers an introduction to Start by Believing, and lots of creative ideas and resources. The Criminal Justice Toolkit addresses the role of criminal justice professionals. And our Action Kits offer specialized advice for various disciplines:
- Victim Advocacy Action Kit
- Health Care Action Kit
- Law Enforcement Action Kit
- Prosecutor Action Kit
- Campus Action Kit
- Military Action Kit
With the freedom to build your own Start by Believing campaign, no two initiatives look exactly the same. We are amazed by the creative ideas communities come up with!
CAN WE ADAPT START BY BELIEVING MATERIALS FOR OUR OWN CAMPAIGN?
Yes, you can adapt Start by Believing materials for use in your own community. For example, you may want to revise the text to describe local services or add agency logos to show community support. There are only a few restrictions.
First, you may not alter the Start by Believing logo in any way. This is because the message is more powerful when the imagery is consistent in local, regional, and statewide campaigns. This also fuels recognition that the campaign has spread across the country and around the world. You can find graphic files for the logo on our resources page, and you can contact staff for more information.
Also, please credit End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) for the campaign, and link to the international website: startbybelieving.org. This can be in addition to any local web pages or social media sites you link with your materials. Again, this helps ensure that the message is consistent, but it also connects people with the information and resources available internationally.
IS START BY BELIEVING APPROPRIATE FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE PROFESSIONALS?
We believe it is appropriate for criminal justice professionals to Start by Believing, and in fact, this is the starting point for a professional, fair, and thorough investigation.
Victims know when someone does not believe them, and this undermines the ability of law enforcement to conduct an effective interview. Without a good interview, there is little chance of successfully investigating the report, and ultimately holding offenders accountable. Start by Believing reverses this dynamic.
It is important to clarify that this does not necessarily mean saying the exact words, “I believe you” to victims. Instead, many law enforcement professionals use phrases like, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” The important issue is not the exact words that are used, but the fact that victims are treated with compassion and respect, and their reports are handled professionally and fairly – instead of communicating the message that they are not believed.
Want to learn more? Our Criminal Justice Toolkit examines these questions in detail.
DOES START BY BELIEVING MEAN “ALWAYS BELIEVE” VICTIMS?
No, but unfortunately, the Start by Believing philosophy is sometimes mischaracterized in this way. For criminal justice professionals, Start by Believing does not mean that they cast aside their responsibility to conduct a full and thorough investigation, or ignore evidence that contradicts a victim’s report or statements made by witnesses and suspects. It does not require believing everything a victim says. It simply offers a starting place for a thorough, fair, evidence-based investigation. Criminal justice professionals must then follow the evidence and make an appropriate determination.
Want to learn more? Our Criminal Justice Toolkit examines these questions in detail.
HOW DOES START BY BELIEVING HELP ENSURE A THOROUGH INVESTIGATION?
A victim’s disclosure is usually the first step in a law enforcement investigation, and the more information a victim can provide, the more avenues for investigation are opened up. When victims are met with respect and compassion, they are more likely to develop rapport with the investigator and share detailed information. For more information, please see our Online Training Institute (OLTI) module: Effective Victim Interviewing: Helping Victims Retrieve and Disclose Memories of Sexual Assault. Also see our Criminal Justice Toolkit, which examines these questions in detail.
HOW SHOULD LAW ENFORCEMENT RESPOND TO QUESTIONS OF BIAS?
It is not sufficient to simply claim that someone is biased because they participated in a Start by Believing campaign. Can the claim be supported with any actual evidence of concrete steps that were taken – or not taken – as a result? Were there specific leads that an officer failed to pursue? Was a potential witness not interviewed? Was an evidence sample not collected? Was a particular piece of information or evidence ignored by the investigator, or withheld from the defense by a prosecutor?
The response to any such claim of bias will involve demonstrating that the investigation or prosecution was conducted following best practices. Police and prosecutors should stand their ground, explaining the procedures followed during the investigation and prosecution, and showing how these reflect their professional obligations and ethics. For a thorough discussion of this topic and concrete guidance on how to respond to this type of challenge, see our training bulletin Start by Believing to Improve Responses to Sexual Assault and Prevent Gender Bias.
Also see our Criminal Justice Toolkit, which examines these questions in detail.