CONWAY — There is more sexual violence in the Mount Washington Valley community than most people know, experts said at a public forum on Wednesday.
Their goal is to make victims feel more comfortable coming forward so that justice and healing have a better chance of happening.
The forum, held at the Mount Washington Valley Adult Day Center in Center Conway, drew about 40 people. It was hosted by Starting Point: Services for Victims of Domestic & Sexual Violence and Memorial Hospital.
The panelists were Carroll County Attorney Michaela Andruzzi, state Division for Children Youth and Families worker Lauren Campbell, Memorial Hospital Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Charisse Hirschfeld, Child Advocacy Center Executive Director Elizabeth Kelley-Scott, Starting Point’s Raetha Stoddard and Conway Police Detective Ryan Wallace.
Tiffany Roberts of Starting Point served as the moderator. She began the forum by asking how prevalent sexual assaults are in Carroll County.
Stoddard said, “I get disclosure every day. It’s a hugely underreported crime.”
Cases of sexual violence often go hand in hand with domestic violence. Stoddard said she suspects that there are cases that are never reported.
“So I think sexual assault, sexual violence is much more prevalent than we hear in the news and we get reports for,” said Stoddard who added disclosure might occur any time from the day of the offense to decades later.
Stoddard said she’s hopeful that “current culture is leaning towards more disclosure.”
Delays can be caused by the victim being overwhelmed by trauma or if the perpetrator could be the family bread winner, the victim may not be financially able to get out of a situation.
Starting Point has resources to help victims who need help getting away from their attackers.
Panelists said the statute of limitations say that adult victims need to report the crime within six years and child victims have 22 years from their 18th birthday.
“We do see a lot of those cases,” said Kelley-Scott referring to adults who report being victimized as a child. “It certainly doesn’t make the prosecution of the cases any easier but we will address those cases as well.”
Stoddard said it has taken some male victims about 40 years to report.
Andruzzi said on average her office receives two or three sexual assault cases per month. Her jurisdiction is countywide, from Jackson and Chatham in the north to Brookfield and Wakefield in the south.
Part of her job is addressing misconceptions that jurors have about sexual violence.
“I think people think of sexual assault as some stranger that jumps out of the bushes with a knife, and that’s just not the reality of what sexual assault is,” said Andruzzi. “Most victims know their perpetrator, and they don’t report it right away.”
“On average the Conway Police Department sees one sexual assault reported per month and that could be a child sexual assault or adult sexual assault,” said Wallace, adding he reviewed the statistics for the past few years.
Hirschfeld said she’s seen 20 adult cases and 15 child cases over the course of her 15-year career.
“It’s not because it doesn’t happen in our valley; it does,” said Hirschfeld. “They (victims) are just not coming in to get care.”
Hirschfeld explained she can perform an exam that has two purposes. The first is to determine if the victim is “medically safe” and the second is to collect evidence in the event the victim wants to prosecute. There is a five-day deadline in terms of evidence collection.
She said generally, adults of sound mind, over 18 are not obligated to report their case to the police.
It is mandated that they must report cases of abuse for all children under 18, for adults who are mentally incapacitated, for elderly adults and for anyone who is in imminent danger, such as having a gunshot wound.
She said people who say they have been sexually assaulted are seen immediately and don’t have to sit in the waiting room.
Wallace said victims can choose whether or not their kit will be submitted as an anonymous tip or not.
Panelists said that a Starting Point Advocate will also meet the victim at the hospital.
Andruzzi said prosecutors screen every case to determine whether there is likelihood of success at trial.
“There are many cases I’ve looked at in my career where I believe the victim ... and I still can’t prosecute it,” said Andruzzi. “And those are the toughest decisions I have to make.”
She said the standard is to convict is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and that requires evidence. Trials are often traumatizing to victims and cases can go on for multiple years. She said jurors may disbelieve a victim who they feel is too emotional or not emotional enough.
However, Andruzzi said the vast majority of the 400 or so criminal cases her office handles per year are resolved by plea bargain. She said they only try about 12 cases per year. At trial, the chances of conviction or acquittal is 50/50, she said.
“I think the statistics are five of every 1,000 perpetrators actually spend time in prison,” said Andruzzi.
“Think about how many women get sexually assaulted, and the numbers are staggering. You know, they say one in six. I think it’s more. That’s just empirically speaking. I always say, you look to your left and you look to your right, chances are one of those women has been sexually assaulted in some form or another in their life.”
Panelists stressed that men can also be victims of sexual assault. They also said there are more victims than perpetrators because perpetrators tend to assault more than one person.
One advantage of the Starting Point advocate has for victims over victim services workers of the police or county attorney’s office is that Starting Point provides confidentiality while the county attorney’s office has to disclose exculpatory statements to the defense.
Kelley-Scott said the Child Advocacy Center gets about 110 cases per year. The center assists with child abuse investigations by providing forensic interviews and case management services.
“The most recent research says that one in 10 children will be a victim of sexual abuse by the time they turn 18,” said Kelley-Scott.
Audience members were invited to ask the panelists questions by writing them down on sticky notes and placing them into baskets.
One questioner asked for self-defense recommendations.
Andruzzi said she loved taking karate and found it “empowering,” and Wallace said pepper spray is effective, too, for stopping attacks.
However, panelists said the danger is a weapon could be taken from a victim by the attacker.
Kelley-Scott said that parents need to tell children that they are in charge of their own bodies and they don’t have to hug or touch anybody that they don’t want to.
“Giving them that control, is something that will serve them well later in life,” said Kelley-Scott.