04-19-21 Melissa Smith conference room horizontal

Melissa Smith is the victim advocate at the Conway Police Department. (RACHEL SHARPLES PHOTO)

Her name is Suzanne. She is gentle and kind, and extremely sensitive.

She is also broken. At 34, she is a victim of not one but repeated sexual assaults, each one leaving her more vulnerable than the last. She has beautiful, imploring blue eyes that intrinsically seek an answer. How much can one spirit, less one body endure?

She defines rape simply and poignantly. “This is about someone having the audacity to enter your space and steal your essence.”

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a sexual assault occurs every 73 seconds, the majority of which go unreported. Eight of 10 sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance.

As a child in the valley, Suzanne was repeatedly raped by the live-in son of her father’s girlfriend. The boy, five years her senior, threatened that non-compliance would result in the rape of her younger brother. When years later she told her parents, she felt they viewed this as a stigma. “What I took away was, ‘I believe you, but I need you to stop talking about this.’”

Suzanne endured years of bullying at school by the other girls. Because she was athletic, she fared better with the boys, but as she matured this brought its own set of problems, and her attentions were interpreted as more than social interactions. Desperate for approval she’d learned by high school that the camaraderie she craved could be garnered by sexuality.

Still that is not an invitation to rape, and in an academically elite boarding school deficient in supervision, she was raped twice before she dropped out in the middle of her senior year. Having turned to administrators, she was treated as a liability. “Watching them conspire to cover this up to protect the school’s reputation caused almost deeper pain than the rapes.”

Dr. Scott Hampton of Dover is a noted psychologist and an expert in domestic and sexual violence.

Of repeated victimization, he said: “We see many people who have been tenderized at an early age, and their expectations are unhealthy. They often have skewed conceptions of appropriate sexual boundaries and what consent looks like, and that leads to exploitation.” Women first victimized as children are two to three times more likely to be victimized as adults.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that nationwide more than one in three women and nearly one in four men experiences sexual violence in their lifetimes, and one in four underage girls and one in 13 underage boys experiences sexual abuse.

Deborah Weinstein, executive director for Carroll County’s Starting Point: Services for Victims of Domestic & Sexual Violence, said, “These numbers hold true for New Hampshire and the Mount Washington Valley as well.”

Non-profit Starting Point provides an umbrella of advocacy and support ranging from counseling to accompanying victims to the hospital or to court, as well as providing shelter to victims fleeing abusers and operating a 24-hour emergency hotline. It also maintains a presence in the schools, giving programs on sexual assault awareness.

At Memorial Hospital, Charisse Hirschfeld was the sole SANE, or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, for years. There are now two, with a third completing the program.

Hirschfeld says, “My job is to ensure the immediate safety of the victim, but our services begin and end at the hospital. That’s why Starting Point is so essential. They help the victim navigate the system and provide a constant source of support.”

She goes on to say, “It’s really important that victims know they’re being believed. Victims need to be told ‘I hear you. I believe you.’”

Six years ago, the Conway Police Department created a victim’s advocate position, the first and still the only one in Carroll County.

Advocate Melissa Smith explains that “there are community advocates, and that’s Starting Point, and there are systems advocates, and that’s law enforcement,” Smith said. “Specifically, I help victims navigate the criminal justice system.”

Prior to joining the Conway PD, Smith directed the victim/witness program for the Carroll County Attorney’s Office, and over the years she has seen tremendous progress in police response to sexual assault.

“Law enforcement is well-trained in trauma, and what goes on in the traumatized brain. They’re aware that the victim’s story is likely to evolve, and they’re adept at understanding the fluid nature of the narrative and how to frame the information,” she said.

Smith says the different agencies ome together to ensure everything happens like it should for victims. Still, this doesn’t address the scope of the problem. There is no treatment in Carroll County for offenders, youth or adult.

There is renewed urgency during a pandemic that has isolated many who live with their abusers.

Time Magazine reports: “Quarantine-linked domestic violence is claiming more victims. ... Isolation has always been one of the most powerful weapons in the abuser’s arsenal.”

Addressing the immediate needs of sexual assault victims is critical, but the residual effects are perhaps the most devastating. Who’s going to be there when the physical wounds have healed and any legal proceedings have concluded?

Suzanne had worked to put her life back together when, as a graduate student teacher, she was raped by her teaching assistant. He had targeted her and plotted his conquest for years, biding his time by raping seven of her students. Suzanne was raped at gunpoint in a basement. She said the narrative her rapist subsequently spread in the community was “I was a slut and a whore and I’d asked for it.”

Suzanne spoke out and was shocked to discover the number of lives he’d shattered.

The case was tried and the rapist convicted, but the sentence amounted to a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, in the wake of his destruction, four of the young women committed suicide.

Sexual assault is an uncomfortable topic. Those who work with victims understand the dire need to have difficult community conversations in order to understand and change rape culture.

For the past year, Suzanne has been home, trying to cope with the severe lingering effects of her own trauma and make sense of her life. She is desperate to have her story heard by friends and family who love her but don’t know how to listen. This requires everyone’s attention.

Starting Point has a 24/7/365 support line for victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking and their families. To speak with an advocate, call (800) 336-3795 or go to resourceconnect.com/sp/chat. All calls are confidential.

This is the first in a series of articles on the sexual assault pandemic.

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