Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Misconceptions about rape remain and are a burden to victims

by Rachel Dissell, Plain Dealer on October 24, 2010

Our mistaken ideas about what rape is start as early as preschool, with lessons about "stranger danger."

Sensational news reports about women attacked in dark alleys by unknown perverts add to the confusion, as messages about who we say the bad guys are get pounded into the public consciousness.

But the majority of rapists and molesters don't lurk in dark corners. They are often people we know -- relatives, neighbors, dates. Rapes don't always fit the patterns we've come to expect.
Our wrong-headed perceptions create a conundrum for victims, detectives and prosecutors, who must decide whether to battle the myths and pursue justice or avoid a spectacle of second-guessing and blaming the victim that, some say, can be as traumatic as being sexually violated -- like a second rape.

"Victims of rape often don't get justice simply because public perception does not match reality," said Megan O'Bryan, president and chief executive of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.

Part of the center's mission is to end those myths through education and advocacy.

But that can be of little solace for victims tangled in the system now. "It is such a slow process due to a culture that still seeks to blame the victim," O'Bryan said.

Decades of national studies and victim surveys back up anecdotal evidence that says that more than 60 percent of sexual crime victims are attacked by friends, dates, former boyfriends, husbands or relatives -- people they know.

In Cleveland, that number is even higher. Of 339 rapes reported this year through July, nearly 75 percent involved someone the victim knew.

Many times alcohol or drugs are involved. And often there is little evidence of physical injury. Cases typified as "he said, she said" are the least likely to be reported and most likely to go unprosecuted.

Unfortunately, sexual perpetrators understand those same biases and exploit them, said Sgt. Liz Donegan of the Austin Police Department, known for its work in combating sex crimes.

"As a society, we are allowing these crimes to happen to a certain extent," she said.

"Perpetrators know we will blame victims and challenge their credibility."

For more than eight years the Austin department has collected information on sexual assaults it handles.

And it is fighting the rape culture by sharpening its investigative techniques toward the typical victim -- rather than concentrating on the less common stranger cases.

A special commission appointed by Mayor Frank Jackson this year to examine how sexual assault cases are handled in Cleveland referred to Austin's work in many of its recommendations for change.

Donegan, who has supervised the adult sex crimes unit for eight years, said police and prosecutors need to push back against the cultural myths among the public -- and within their own professions.

"It's realizing that there's often alcohol involved and that there's often no injuries. And that most of the time the investigation is going to be hard and going to come down to a consent issue," Donegan said.

"Being a police officer, you want to see things in black and white," she said. "Sex crimes are almost always gray."

There was a perception that the cases were lousy, that the victims were not credible, Donegan said. The department leadership educated officers and began demanding that the so-called acquaintance rapes be investigated with the same vigor as stranger rapes. Attitudes began to change, and the more challenging cases got worked on, she said.

But that doesn't mean that all the cases are solved or that all the victims feel great about the process.

Detectives still have to walk a fine line between their duties as impartial investigators and the need to let victims know the criminal justice system supports them. And they have to give victims the ultimate choice and control over whether they want to participate in a prosecution, Donegan said.

In Austin, advocates employed by the department and the courts have played an increasingly larger role in sex-crimes cases. They respond to 9-1-1 calls and go to hospitals. They prepare victims for what types of questions to expect when interviewed by detectives. They explain each step in the case. And if the case goes to court, they are there, too.

Until recently in Cleveland, volunteer and professional rape crisis center advocates were mainly linked with victims when referred by hospitals, by detectives or, further down the line, by prosecutors.

Now, the rape crisis center has a victim advocate stationed in the sex crimes unit to review all reports and quickly offer help to victims-- whether they choose to prosecute or not.

Most people who report sexual attacks drop out of the process after making the initial report, according to a Plain Dealer analysis of reports from 2004 through 2008.

Detectives' reports often note that the victims can't be found or decide not to cooperate with the investigation. Less than 30 percent of reported cases ever make it to court.

Current members of the Sex Crimes & Child Abuse Unit declined to talk about how public perception plays into their interaction with victims.

O'Bryan said that pursuing prosecution isn't always the best decision for many rape victims.

"It is a personal decision that balances many factors including what is going on it that victim's life and the fact that many perpetrators are known and trusted by the victim, making it a less 'believable' rape," O'Bryan said.

"Many victims don't want their experiences scrutinized or to sit face-to-face from their perpetrator in court through a lengthy and often re-victimizing process. So they decide it is simply better for their healing not to prosecute."

But that decision has to be one that is made after a case is investigated and a victim is fully informed, said Donegan.

"We want victims to have that choice and that control," she said. "But if the default is not going forward because it's easier, then you will never challenge the status quo."

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