Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cleveland moves fitfully toward making women safer

by Connie Schultz, published Plain Dealer Sunday, July 18, 2010

This is the good news for survivors of sexual assault in Northeast Ohio: For the first time in decades, there is no waiting list at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.

Last fall, the CRCC received $600,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, and hired 11 additional staff members.

The bad news: The CRCC probably will be back to begging for dollars sometime next year, cobbling together one-time grants and contributions to serve a population of survivors whose numbers never diminish.

The national estimates are persistently grim: One in four women, and one in 33 men, will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Yet there is no consistent funding at the federal, state or local levels committed to helping victims of these crimes.

"We don't have a single source of funding we can count on from year to year," says CRCC Director Megan O'Bryan.

The stimulus money came only weeks before news organizations around the world started following the grisly story unfolding in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, where the remains of 11 women were found at the home of Anthony Sowell. CRCC used some of the stimulus money to set up satellite services for those who couldn't, or wouldn't, come to the main site.

The murders ignited community outrage over the handling of crimes that overwhelmingly target women.

In December, Mayor Frank Jackson appointed a three-woman commission to investigate how police handled such cases. In March, the commission released a 900-page report that included 26 recommendations. Jackson appointed an oversight committee to monitor the city's progress.
Last week, Plain Dealer reporters Leila Atassi and Rachel Dissell reported that all sex crimes detectives now have cell phones and e-mail -- a change that illustrates an appallingly low previous standard. The city also has drafted new general police orders for handling missing-persons cases, and plans are in the works for an external agency to audit the caseloads of sex-crimes detectives.

One glaring caveat to this good news: The oversight committee's meetings have been closed to the public and the press, with no plans to change.

O'Bryan, who was on the three-woman commission and is now on the committee, defends the secrecy.

"We are having one-on-one meetings with the police chief and his staff," she says. "We are trying to build a trusting relationship, and it won't help us do that if we're having these conversations in front of the public. . . . They need to trust and respect us to do our job."

I've known O'Bryan for several years. There is no fiercer advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Her organization stakes its work on privacy and confidentiality, which is crucial in helping thousands of survivors every year. It's easy to understand her frustration with calls for transparency.

But in her new role, O'Bryan bears the burden of a community's long-held distrust of its police. Thus the necessary tension: The police want to work out their problems in private, and The Plain Dealer has a duty to examine their every step.

One of the commission's recommendations was that the Cuyahoga County Chiefs of Police Association provide a set of best practices for investigating missing persons and sex crimes.
John Maddox, the organization's president and chief of the Middleburg Heights force, says he is waiting to be asked.

"Nobody's contacted me about that," he told The Plain Dealer's Atassi. "I haven't personally, nor has anyone from the organization, been approached to work on any of those issues. I have no idea what's in that report. And what little I do know, I read about in The Plain Dealer."
Why hasn't the city of Cleveland requested those reports? And why would the police chief of any city in Cuyahoga County wait for an invitation before taking steps to improve the safety of women?

As for having "no idea what's in the report," Maddox and his association of fellow chiefs are hereby invited to visit The Plain Dealer's affiliated Web site,, where they will find a link to the entire report.

Think of it as mandatory summer reading.

And expect a quiz.

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