By Tammi Pitzen, Executive Director of The Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County
Not surprising, I would say, but here we are in 2015 and I am still getting questions and reading about delayed reporting of sexual assault and how that must mean the abuse did not happen. I really don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said, so I am going to share a story with a different view point.
In the context of my work with children who have been abused, I have had the opportunity to work with adults who were sexually abused or assaulted and never reported. It is a very common story. Actually, the scenario goes something like this….
Me: Hi, Ms. Smith. How are you doing today?
Ms. Smith: Tears seeping out of the corners of her eyes or sometimes smoke from the ears (so to speak) but no verbal response.
Me: Ms. Smith, let me talk to you about your child. She has disclosed that she was sexually abused by Mr. Doe. It started a few years ago, but the last incident was two weeks ago.
Ms. Smith: Silence. Shaking.
Me: Ms. Smith, I can see you are upset. I need your help in keeping your daughter safe. Do you think that we can come up with a plan together?
Finally Ms. Smith says something like: There is no way that could have happened. He would never do that. He loves kids. He helps me. He loves me.
Me: Ms. Smith, help me understand. Why would she say this happened if it didn’t? That would be concerning also.
Ms. Smith: Crying. She is a good kid. She doesn’t lie. (More silence.) I am a good parent. I would never let this happen. (Silence.) I can’t go through this again. I have never told anyone, but this happened to me as a child. No one believed me, so I lied and said that it never happened. Then as an adult a few years later, I was sexually abused by my ex- boyfriend’s father. I never reported because no one ever believes and when I told what happened as a child, I was called a liar. I was thrown away by my family. Why does this keep happening to me?
Or sometimes the script goes in a different direction. A direction that is more painful to watch and to hear. Sometimes the story includes drugs to make the pain go away or maybe some other self-destructive behaviors that make “society” deem that she is not credible.
But the very common thread that runs through all the situations is that the victim has felt unsafe either emotional or physically or both and did not report until such time as she felt there would be someone that would be there that would provide support, safety and acceptance.
I also want to point out that we do not afford victims in our society the same unquestionable rights.
We allow perpetrators the luxury of the Fifth Amendment which is the right to remain silent. They are never forced to explain their actions. In fact, in most cases — maybe all cases — the jury is instructed not to read anything into the fact that a defendant chooses to remain silent. His or her silence is not indicative of guilt or innocence.
We do not allow that right to victims of sexual assault. They must explain themselves and their actions. Sometimes even those actions that occurred prior to an assault and definitely those actions that occur after an assault.
I think that it is really hard for people to understand this dynamic of being afraid to report and so rather than believe, they disbelieve unless it fits what they feel are reasonable reactions to being sexually assaulted.
These seem to be: 1) report right away; 2) show physical injuries which are left visible; 3) prove that you are pure—preferably a virgin; 4) make it clear that you have never had any other struggles in your life; and 5) come from a family similar to the Cleavers. Okay, so maybe most of these are tongue in cheek but seriously, when you start to look at the expectations put on victims it is incredible. I am not sure that I would pass the test.
I have been accused of being naive. I have been accused of always believing the victim. I don’t think that I fit under either of these statements.
I think 25 years of working directly and indirectly with this population has taken away my innocence. I think 25 years of following the research gives me a knowledge base to work with. I think that 25 years of hearing the excuses that come out of offenders’ mouths as they provide what they believe is a rationale for their behavior has made me cynical, but it definitely does not leave me being naive or gullible. I think that ship sailed a long time ago.
There are times that I long to not know what I know.
It is frustrating to live in a world that does not even entertain the notion that most people who report being sexually assaulted are actually telling the truth.
And while we are there, why shouldn’t people be compensated for damages? Why shouldn’t they be paid for their pain and suffering? When is the last time that anyone said, “They are just looking to see a payday” when referring to the car accident victim left paralyzed? Or question the credibility of the arson victim?
Does the general public have any idea of the costs associated with the damage that is left after a sexual assault?
According to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, each rape that occurs costs about $151,423. (DeLisi, 2010). I am assuming these are the costs associated with the medical care that is needed after an assault, but there are lingering physical ailments and mental health issues that need to be addressed in some cases for many years after the rape. This same organization also reports that due to negative reactions to the rape, 50% of rape victims either have to quit or are forced to leave their jobs. (Ellis, Atkeson, & Calhoun, 1981).
BUT…let’s be clear that the far majority of sexual assault victims do not sue for compensation. Many sue after the legal system fails them. Many sue because the statute of limitations is shorter than the time it takes to reclaim your voice after being victimized. Many sue because they want the world to know who the offender really is. And many sue because they want to be compensated for pain and suffering. It has also been my experience that the courts are conservative when awarding these types of damages.
Someone once asked me, “Why does it take so long to report? Why does it take so long to heal? Why bring it up after so many years?” I cannot answer for victims but I can speculate based on what survivors have shared with me.
Imagine someone stealing your identity. No, more than your identity — your soul. Not only does no one know who you are any more but YOU don’t know who you are any more. Imagine trying to unravel all the confusion while being told by society that you are damaged and not believable. That you have no value because your rapist took the part of you that was valued.
Imagine then somehow finding your voice. Imagine your strength. Imagine finding safety. Imagine finding out that you were not the only soul invaded by this monster. Finding that you are not defined by this act of violence and wanting someone held accountable only to find there is no way to do that because you ran out of time. The clock started clicking and time ran out before you were ready.
There is a campaign going on that is sponsored by the Joyful Heart Foundation called “No More”.
Unless you never watch TV or refrain from participating on social media, I am pretty sure you have seen one or two of these. My “No More” is “No More If it were true she would have reported right away” or maybe, “ No More He is an icon of family wholesomeness — there is no way he could have done this.” “No More she is looking for money!”
What is your “No More”?