The Roundup -

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

 

April 25, 2018 | View PDF



April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and it is important for victims and their families to know that they are not alone.

The Seventh Judicial Victim Witness Program has been in existence for twenty-four years and was relocated from Dawson County to Richland County in 2007. The program provides services to Richland, Prairie, Dawson, McCone, and Wibaux counties, but has no jurisdictional boundaries so can provide services to anyone who requests them. While it offers resources to victims and witnesses of all crimes, roughly 75% of all the individuals they work with are victims of sex crimes. During their last fiscal year (July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017) they served 300 primary victims of crime. With the end of their current fiscal year still months away, they have already served 254 primary victims. It is important to note that the Victim Witness Program doesn’t deny services to anyone, so even if the crime was never reported, there are still resources available.

“This is a problem that is not going away, and our crime rate hasn’t dropped,” stated Paula Eberling who has been a Crime Victim Advocate for 18 years. “It doesn’t matter what your social status, race, or gender are. Sexual assault can happen to anyone.”

Crime Victim Advocates are there to offer support to victims by talking to them about what has happened. And, with the victim’s permission, they can also can also provide information to families about how they can help their loved one. The Victim Witness Program offers crisis response, personal advocacy, court and law enforcement accompaniment, transportation, and facilitation of forensic testing, so victims have support available at every step. Currently, forensic testing is not available locally in the Sidney area, so advocates will arrange testing and provide transportation to surrounding hospitals in Williston, Glendive, Wolf Point, or Billings. No one ever imagines sexual assault will affect them, but when it does, Crime Victim Advocates are there to guide them through the unfamiliar process.

As important as it is for victims to know where to turn, it is equally important for the community to understand the aftermath these individuals live with. Few realize that sexual assault is a crime in which the burden of proof is put on the victim. Bringing perpetrators to justice requires a victim to give detailed and separate accounts of their trauma to Crime Victim Advocates, law enforcement, and prosecution and defense lawyers. Additionally, forensic testing is necessary to collect vital DNA evidence, so when victims want to do nothing more than change out of the clothes they were wearing during the assault and shower, they instead must sit in a car for an hour or more en route to medical facilities that provide forensic exams. These important but invasive exams can take up to four hours.

Victims also deal with misconceptions about sexual assault victims, often being probed with questions of ‘Why were you there?’ or ‘Why did you do or say that?’. While these questions aren’t necessarily posed to assign blame, they do imply a measure of fault that can have devastating effects on victims’ mental and emotional states.

“The number one question sexual assault victims have is ‘Was this my fault?’,” commented Eberling. “Victims are defensive and feel like they need to justify their actions. One of the most important things we can do for them is to simply believe them and remind them that it isn’t their fault.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about sexual assault simply because it isn’t something that is often or openly talked about. For instance, a common rationale is that we live in a safe community, where it is unlikely danger is lurking. According to a 2005 study, 73% of female sexual assault victims knew their attacker, whether they were acquaintances, friends, or intimate partners. The same study showed that less than 39% of all rapes were reported, making sexual assault one of the most underreported crimes, especially for male victims. Another stigma is that victims invite the assault based on what they wear, how they look and act, the company they keep, or the situations they choose to be in. Apply that rational to a different crime and it’s easy to see how completely illogical it is; it would be like saying someone should’ve expected to be shot outside a football stadium for wearing the wrong team colors or that a person should expect to be robbed because their wallet can be seen in their back pocket. Placing blame on victims seems ridiculous in both of those scenarios, but this is the attitude many victims of sexual assault are met with in their day-to-day lives. There is no special circumstance that makes sexual assault a deserved reality. Perhaps it makes people feel safer if they believe that victims have control over their assaults, but sexual assault happens due to the motivations of the attackers, not the victims.

Sexual assault causes a delay in every aspect of a victim’s life. All victims struggle with shame due to their feelings of responsibility for the situation and many change their appearance and behavior, becoming withdrawn from the activities and people they once enjoyed. Some even suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder dealing with nightmares, anxiety attacks, and even seizures. Not knowing how to help victims return to a pre-attack state can be a difficult, frustrating, and even heartbreaking process.

“Change will only come through educating the community and empowering victims,” stated Eberling. “Stigmas about sexual assault will only change when we start talking about it. Victims’ stories are key in education; we have to learn from the victims.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, know that there is support available. Contact the Seventh Judicial Victim Witness Program at 406-433-6725.

 

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