Former Sex Crimes Prosecutor on Supporting Survivors in their Quest for Justice

Each month, RAINN highlights a member of its National Leadership Council. The NLC is a group of dedicated individuals who have shown their commitment to RAINN’s mission of supporting survivors and ending sexual violence.

Samuel Dordulian is a highly regarded litigator in the Southern California-area with more than 20 years of experience, including over 100 jury trial victories. As a former sex crimes prosecutor and Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County, Mr. Dordulian successfully obtained life sentences against some of the state’s most heinous criminals. Today, Mr. Dordulian is the president and founder of Dordulian Law Group in Glendale, California. His practice specializes in sexual assault civil litigation.

What inspired you to become part of RAINN’s National Leadership Council?

I have been a fierce advocate for survivors of sexual assault for the past 20 years. And as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, I wanted to align myself with one of the best known and largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States. I think the work RAINN does has a profound impact in terms of educating and helping to reduce sexual violence, and I’d like to help further that cause in any way.

What do we need to do as a country to prevent sexual violence?

I think education is key to eradicating sexual violence. We need to talk to our kids and have an open dialogue about the consequences and harms of sexual violence. As such, we need to marshal both our men and boys as allies in this fight. But most importantly, we need to support survivors. To do that, we need to make sure we believe and support them when they muster the courage to tell their story. The more we highlight these issues, the more societal norms will shift away from victim blaming to supporting survivors of sexual violence.

Do you feel special motivation about this issue?

I not only feel a special motivation about this issue, but I have a passion to advocate against sexual violence and have been doing so for the past 20 years. This is literally my life’s work, both as a sex crimes prosecutor and now a civil attorney representing sexual assault survivors.

Your practice has a special focus on helping survivors of abuse. Why did you pursue this area of the law?

I didn’t actually pursue this area of law — this practice of representing survivors of sexual assault pursued me. It started when I was in the 8th grade. One day, I was pulled out of class by two Glendale Police detectives who asked me all sorts of questions about my YMCA coach. It turned out he had been molesting several boys on the team. I was fortunate; I wasn't a victim. Years later, when I became a Deputy District Attorney with Los Angeles County, my very first jury trial was a sexual molestation case. I didn't pick that case; it was assigned to me. As I gained more experience with the DA's office, I was offered a position in our elite Sex Crimes Unit. It was there that I realized my passion to assist survivors of sexual violence and have continued representing survivors ever since. And I truly find it both humbling and inspiring to have the opportunity to help survivors of these heinous crimes achieve a semblance of justice.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges facing survivors seeking justice?

One of the greatest challenges for survivors seeking justice is fighting against social norms that tend to cast judgment on the victim, blame them, and fail to believe them. We must remember that sexual violence usually occurs behind closed doors. It's not a crime that is subject to surveillance evidence or witnesses. Therefore, the credibility of the survivor is pivotal. Thankfully, I have noticed that there has been a recent shift in societal norms regarding sexual violence, and it has been easier to bring such cases to court lately. Hopefully we can continue this trend.

Also, another big challenge is having our laws match the science behind sexual violence. Studies indicate that most survivors of sexual violence are not comfortable telling their stories until many years after the sexual assault. Yet, our statute of limitations requires a filing of civil lawsuits within a much more contained period. Thankfully, these issues are improving with the passage of new laws, such as AB 218 in California, which opened up a three-year window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward with a case, no matter when the crime occurred. We need to continue to recognize that survivors of sexual assault need more time than the current laws permit and eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault claims to address that need. And I think the #endrapesol movement is having a significant impact in achieving that goal.

How can we all be better supporters and advocates for survivors in our lives?

I think we need to listen to survivors. That may sound cliché, but I’ve seen it since I was a sex crimes prosecutor and especially now as a civil attorney for sexual assault survivors — simply not having someone to talk to about the crime often means a survivor doesn’t feel as if they can come forward. That’s why one of the first questions our intake specialists ask when a potential survivor client contacts our office is: “Who do you have in your life to support you through this process?”

Unfortunately, the answer is often “no one.” At DLG, we created a SAJE Team within our Sex Crimes Division. SAJE stands for Sexual Assault Justice Experts, and three of our team members — a clinical therapist and two victim advocates — are primarily available to listen to (and support) survivors.

Whether we want to accept the fact or not, sexual assault and abuse affects everyone — it doesn’t matter how much money you have, your ethnicity or religion, where you live, etc. If it’s not happening to you, I can almost guarantee that you know someone or are related to someone who has experienced some form of sexual abuse. In over 20 years of working in this field I’ve come to realize that sexual violence is blind, and although you may not be aware of it, we’re all connected to it in some way. And that means we should all listen to survivors.

And by listening, we become educated to the fact that this is something that affects all of us, and then the stigma is shattered, which is so critical. That stigma has definitely improved in recent years, but we have a long way to go in removing it fully so that more survivors feel comfortable coming forward. It’s stated plainly on RAINN’s website that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free. If we truly listened to survivors, I know that number would be dramatically reduced, and that’s a major aspect in supporting survivors. When a survivor takes charge and secures justice on their terms, it can be extraordinarily empowering in the healing process. I think if we listened to survivors, they’d be much more inclined to do just that when they’re ready.

Additionally, although I touched on this before I think it’s important enough to reiterate — we need to push our elected officials to end the statute of limitations on both criminal and civil sex crimes to allow survivors the opportunity to come forward and report on their own terms. Justice for crimes like rape and child sexual abuse shouldn’t be under a deadline. Some states have made that bold move to eliminate the statute of limitations for rape, but we need all 50 states to follow suit and not restrict it to only certain sexual offenses. If we listen to survivors and they know that they can come forward when they’re ready, the justice system will be transformed for the better.

What is your message to survivors?

My message to survivors is to not be afraid and to tell your story. News of the Bill Cosby criminal acquittal or some of Harvey Weinstein’s charges being dropped should not deter survivors from coming forward and pursuing justice. The criminal system is only one avenue survivors have for obtaining the justice they deserve. Civil lawsuits are an opportunity for survivors to punish predators, secure justice, and recover financial compensation that allows them to move forward on their own terms. Don’t let the occasional high-profile loss discourage or intimidate you as a survivor — fight for justice.

Thankfully, there has been a recent shift in societal norms in terms of accepting and believing stories of abuse. We must continue creating safe environments for all survivors — men and women — to feel secure enough to tell their stories. AB 218 in California has created an opportunity for survivors to obtain access to justice that was once denied. That’s had an unprecedented impact by helping survivors finally achieve justice, and many have come forward and been able to do so when their cases would have been rejected prior to the bill’s passage. But the number of survivors who have come forward is a fraction of the tens of thousands that are out there, and we need to use the remaining available months before the AB 218 deadline expires to educate people that this chance at justice actually exists.

Time is of the essence, and we need to do everything we can to spread the word that while AB 218 equals a chance at justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse [in California], that chance is only available for a short time. The end of the three-year window is fast approaching — we’re over halfway through the eligibility period — and if your claim isn't filed timely, you will be barred from the doors of justice. In my experience representing survivors of sexual abuse and assault, the empowerment that comes with obtaining justice and finally having their voices heard is incredibly healing. We can assist survivors in this journey and give them back the control that was taken from them by their perpetrators. It doesn’t matter how long ago the crime occurred — you can still obtain justice if you act now.

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