Santa Clara County is expanding a pilot program that provides victims who have been choked by their intimate partners with free medical forensic exams, followup care and victim advocacy.

The Board of Supervisors this week unanimously approved expanding testing — which had been only available to adults and adolescents in domestic abuse cases in certain parts of the county — to the rest of the county and to children in child abuse cases.

The reason for such testing is because it helps victims prove abuse in court and prevent their abuser from continued abuse or even eventually killing them, said Carla Collins, who leads the county’s Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention.

“It’s important for everyone to understand this, so that the patient gets the medical care and additional supports needed to heal and to be safe,” Collins said.

And some of that support is found in a courtroom — by convicting their abuser.

In cases where medical forensic exams were conducted, the criminal case supported the filing of more serious felony charges over misdemeanor charges 86.6 percent of the time during the pilot program. In comparison, the felony rate for cases of intimate partner violence was 28.8 percent in 2019, before the county started its testing program, according to a recent report by the Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention.

There were also higher prosecution rates, “which means that the violent perpetrator was removed, preventing continued abuses and possibly preventing homicide,” Collins said.

Victim’s court testimony not necessary

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said the medical exams were the reason his office won a jury trial in a domestic violence case on Nov. 17, 2020, despite the victim declining to testify at trial.

“The medical evidence was the crucial witness to what he had done to her,” Rosen said. “(It was) the key to helping the jury find the defendant guilty of all the crimes.”

The victim in that case was one of the 30 women who participated in the county’s pilot program for free medical forensic testing for non-fatal strangulation victims.

The Santa Clara Police Department was the responding law enforcement agency who took the victim to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for the exam.

The pilot program, launched in January 2020, allocated $5 million to provide testing for 150 adolescent and adult victims of domestic abuse.

The state provides funding to test victims of sexual assault but not victims of choking, Collins said, which is why the county created its own free testing.

“We explain the dangers of strangulation, educate the victim on why the exam is so important … and the victim may change his or her mind.”

Ingrid Infante, Community Solutions

However, one main drawback of the program is that only 20 percent of the 150 women offered testing participated.

Ingrid Infante, a domestic violence advocate with Community Solutions, a nonprofit that supports victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence and many other crises, said the reason for this is likely because law enforcement officers do not encourage testing and victims may not understand the benefits.

During the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, she suggested that law enforcement agencies instead direct victims who qualify for testing to service providers regardless of whether the victim wants an exam done at the time.

“Advocates are trained to screen for strangulation and explain its consequences to victims,” Infante said. “We explain the dangers of strangulation, educate the victim on why the exam is so important … and the victim may change his or her mind.”

In fact, Community Solutions referred six women who reported being choked to a medical forensic examination — a 100 percent referral rate. One survivor who had initially declined an examination later changed her mind as well.

At their Tuesday meeting, the board also approved that the county and the District Attorney’s Office partner with the San Diego-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention to request an assessment of the county’s response and prevention system and get advice on how to improve it.

The findings from the partnership will come back to the board on May 4.