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Advocates seek a world without sexual violence

THE 10,000 STEPS Toward Healing walk April 22 drew a crowd to downtown The Dalles. Its goal is to raise awareness of sexual violence within the community. People are asked to wear the color teal in honor of Sexual Violence Awareness month.

THE 10,000 STEPS Toward Healing walk April 22 drew a crowd to downtown The Dalles. Its goal is to raise awareness of sexual violence within the community. People are asked to wear the color teal in honor of Sexual Violence Awareness month. Photo by Mark Gibson.

Hands go up quickly as Taylor Rosenthal and Victor Mondragon, the HAVEN prevention team, start talking about the Relationship Bill of Rights.

These Dufur middle schoolers are defining and agreeing on the articles of their own group bill of rights.

The brainstorming session touches on a variety of rights: to feel safe, to be silent and listen, to have help when they need it, to be respected. But those rights come with responsibilities and Rosenthal asks them to name those, too. Among them: the responsibility to treat others with the same respect you expect.

“It’s a two-way street,” Rosenthal said.

The items that go on their four lists of rights — social, emotional, physical and at school — don’t touch much on sexual issues other than the right not to be touched inappropriately, but the ultimate aim of these classes is to teach young people ways to avoid becoming victims — or perpetrators — of sexual violence.

“The goal is to prevent sexual violence and teen dating violence,” Rosenthal explained during an interview. In the classroom, that means encouraging healthier behaviors using the CERTS formula: consent, equality, respect, trust and safety.

The classes are available in Dufur (they’re also taught at North Wasco County middle and high schools) thanks to federal Rape Prevention Education funding channeled through the state Sexual Assault Task Force. The funding was provided for through the federal Violence Against Women Act.

“I think it’s making positive changes,” said Nancy Greenman, who represents the grantor and is observing for the day. “They’re talking about healthy relationships. That’s perfect.”

“Teaching consent starts at birth — really,” said Tara Koch, executive director of HAVEN. “How parents, adults and siblings approach consent and respond to ‘asking’ is critical in understanding yes and no.”

She uses the example of a father tickling or wrestling with his child and continuing to do so even after she or he says stop.

“This assumption is the word ‘no’ has no power,” Koch said. “These examples are typical messages that are given in the family dynamics or family systems that continue to cycle through one’s childhood.”

And where sexual violence is concerned, they can lead to challenges for children and adults in being able to adequately express their wishes, whether yes or no.

The prevention team sessions are also designed as a safe place where young people find out how to get help if they need it. They often bring what they call a “voice box” that allows students to submit questions or concerns in writing that they wouldn’t want to ask in class. Sometimes students find the links between what they learn in class and what’s going on in their lives.

“Once my boyfriend of nine months broke up with me because I was molested at a party and I confided in him about it,” wrote a student in one of the classes.

“I used to blame myself,” wrote another. “I was in an abusive relationship with one of my former friends. I always thought I was doing something wrong.”

“How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?”

Sometimes the students explore how they can put the classroom teachings to work.

“Defend the person who is being blamed.”

Asked what is most important in the CERTS model of behavior, one student wrote, “Consent. Without it, the others aren’t possible in a relationship.”

It isn’t always physical

What is sexual violence? Many people equate it with rape or similar sexual assault, but the term has broader meaning.

“Sexual violence is any sexual contact that is manipulated, coerced, forced, unwanted or not consensual,” said Gwen Paulson, a sexual assault and rural advocate for HAVEN, in a group discussion with HAVEN advocates.

“It’s language and questions — the language you use and the names you call,” Rosenthal added.

“It’s when someone is verbally saying something, even if they’re talking about how hot you look and what you’re wearing,” said Anna Williams. “Sexual violence is defined by the understanding of the victim. It doesn’t really matter whether the intent was to hurt or scare.”

In other words, sexual violence happens when someone feels violated in sexual ways, both physical and not physical.

“Sexual violence is very broad and not all of it is arrestable,” Koch said.

Sometimes sexual violence is about pressure.

“Submitting to sex is not consent,” said Oregon State Police Det. Lori Rosebraugh, a member of the Sexual Assault Response Team in another interview. “Merely being worn down by having somebody beg and make you feel guilty enough that eventually you say ‘fine, do whatever you’re going to do,’ is not consent.”

The CERTS model used in prevention classes, is also used at HAVEN with adults who may have trouble understanding and exercising their rights within a relationship.

“It’s also about sharing space,” Rosenthal said. “Consent isn’t just about the physical.”

“We grow up in a culture where kids say awful things as a gender norm,” said Mondragon. They question each other’s sexuality through name-calling and other means, another form of sexual violence, and Mondragon and Rosenthal also work to teach students how to respond as “upstanders” not bystanders. “You can call them out and say, ‘what you said isn’t OK.’”

The aim is to teach healthy behaviors in a world where the opposite is often glorified in what some describe as “rape culture.”

“What that really means is a culture in society that creates an expectation that sexual violence is normal,” Williams explained.

The “Twilight” movies, particularly popular with adolescents, are an example of that, where stalking and aggressive physical behavior are glorified.

“It’s a culture where ‘no’ really means ‘yes’, and the images are of aggressive physical desire,” Paulson added.

Victim blaming

Many sexual violence prevention approaches focus on reducing risk factors and promoting protective factors, Koch noted, like wearing “appropriate” clothing, avoiding risky places or situations and learning self-defense techniques.

Those kinds of techniques put all the burden of preventing sexual violence on the potential victim.

“People who do ‘everything right’ still get raped or sexually assaulted,” Koch said.

“You don’t ask an 8-year-old what she was wearing to provoke her dad or brother,” Rosenthal added.

Instead, the prevention focus through HAVEN is on the root causes of sexual violence, in particular the imbalance of power between victim and perpetrator.

In classrooms, Rosenthal and Mondragon do an activity called “gender boxes” where students describe the attributes often expected of men and women. Soon, the differences become clear as words like “quiet” and “polite” and “act like a lady” for women are contrasted with “doesn’t cry” and “strong” and “tough.”

Culture can also affect the gender roles, noted Mondragon, who is of Latino descent.

“One of the things with our culture that is very ingrained with families is that they tell [boys] not to share their feelings,” he said.

An even starker comparison can be seen in prevention classrooms when students talk about how they prepare to prevent sexual violence. The girls’ rattle off the many “don’ts” designed to protect them from assault, while the boys often have a puzzled expression on their faces. They simply aren’t taught that sexual violence could happen to them and aren’t expected to modify their behavior to avoid blame if it does happen.

Trauma help

While advocates are working to create a world where consent — or the lack of it — are both respected and complied with decisions, sexual assaults continue to happen.

And when they happen, one of the first faces survivors may see is someone like Laura Korb.

Korb is what’s known as a SANE — a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner — for Mid-Columbia Medical Center, one of four the hospital employs.

“A SANE nurse has specialized training in a combination of studies,” Korb explained, “forensic nursing, crisis intervention and trauma, counseling and a bit of public health on things like STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), HIV and pregnancy prevention. We’re like a variety of nurses all rolled into one.”

KORB took her training last November and is in the process of completing a lengthy certification process involving real-world experience under the mentorship of more experienced nurses. She hopes to be fully certified in May.

The nurses are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition to a SANE nurse, a HAVEN representative is also called.

“We’re allowing the survivor of assault to guide what happens in their case,” Korb said — that’s one way they work to avoid creating the sense of further victimization. “Not everyone wants to prosecute their attacker, for a variety of reasons.” Some may not know what options are available, some may have reasons they choose not to seek prosecution.

“We provide them with choices and explain how the process works for each of those choices,” she said. “And the HAVEN advocate is there always to help them process. There are a lot of emotions and anxiety over what going to the police means to that person.”

Forensic collection — gathering evidence from the individual’s body — is only done if it has been less than 84 hours since the assault.

“Preservation of possible DNA and evidence is a lot less likely after that time period,” Korb said. “But even after 84 hours, somebody can still come in and get pregnancy-prevention, HIV and other STD counseling. And we still deal with everything else, we just wouldn’t collect evidence.”

Assuring that the survivor is in charge of the process can be challenging at times.

“You learn to read facial expressions and body language pretty quickly,” Korb said.

“Even if somebody is saying, yes, it’s OK to do a general exam, you’re looking at their body position. Are they closed in or keeping their legs closed? It helps to determine whether they are actually ready. We talk back and check in frequently on what we are doing.”

The goal is to minimize trauma, she said. HAVEN advocates are helpful at reading clues and speaking up for the patient.

“It’s a unique moment in time that hopefully won’t happen to a person again,” Korb said.

“I find it a huge privilege to be there for that person at that moment, and knowing that with what they’re going through they may never remember me or my name or what happened that day, but if in the end they are met with resources and a positive experience with the health care system, I feel we can shed light into a very dark place.”

Investigation

The information collected from the victim becomes part of the broader investigation, which locally usually involves Rosebraugh of the Oregon State Police.

For most of the last 14 years, Rosebraugh has investigated sexual assault and child abuse cases.

“I think we kind of go through time periods, depending on what’s going on socially about how people feel about reporting sexual violence,” Rosebraugh said.

The nature of such crimes can also change.

“It’s all moving toward technology,” she explained, “how people are meeting their victims and how they perpetrate their crimes. Eventually they meet up and have contact, but it’s very anonymous, you don’t know people and yet they form relationships, then they create or engineer an encounter.”

The local area doesn’t see quite as much of that kind of encounter, Rosebraugh said. More common are events such as “kids that sext and trade images, then hold them against the other person and they feel threatened. We try to be understanding about not prosecuting kids making terrible decisions.” Sometimes, though, the problems become severe enough that prosecution is warranted.

When a case does come down to sexual assault or similar physical crimes, Rosebraugh is among the first people called.

“Generally, Jamie Carrico [The Dalles police detective] will call and say, ‘I’ve got a gal at the hospital who says this is what happened. Are you available?’”

Several people on the Sexual Assault Response Team, a legislatively mandated county team of experts on the subject, will review the initial statement about the assault and make assignments regarding evidence, interviews and other tasks.

“[A HAVEN] advocate is almost always there before we get there,” Rosebraugh said. A lot of things become obstacles, she noted.

“The percentage of it being a stranger is usually very low — it’s usually somebody they know,” she said. “A lot of times the biggest obstacle is that person feeling like they can’t make a report, or feeling guilty or afraid of repercussions or not supported.

“Younger victims get bullied a lot more. Teenagers tell a friend they’re going to the [emergency room] and it goes like wildfire. People start texting other people, and you no longer have control of information. It’s harder to have the element of surprise. That’s a big problem.”

Most cases Rosebraugh gets called to have some kind of charges filed, she said. But the percentage of cases that actually go to court is much lower.

“Usually, there’s some kind of resolution.”

Investigations can go on over a period of months, Rosebraugh said, especially if cell phone subpoenas are filed.

“Agencies all over the place submit subpoenas. It takes a really long time.”

One of the things Rosebraugh thinks is important for people to understand about sexual violence is that it’s not all cut and dried.

“It’s not always the suspect holding somebody down and forcing themselves on them, like we’re trained to think rape would be,” she said. “A lot more times than not, the situation is very complicated. It involves emotions and a lot of times with kids, underdeveloped brains that make bad decisions.

“And it’s important for people to know that, just because something happens to somebody, it doesn’t mean they’re going to start screaming or crying rape because, especially if they’re in a relationship with that person, or have been in a relationship, there are feelings of attraction, guilt, they may want to help that person.”

Court

challenges

Bringing a sexual assault case successfully through the court system presents a number of challenges and one of the biggest is educating jury members who have formed their opinions of the criminal justice system through fictionalized portrays, such as those on television programs like “CSI.”

“Unfortunately, the rules of evidence prohibit us from really using experts anymore to explain some of the concepts and statistics to jurors,” said Leslie Wolf, chief deputy district attorney for Wasco County.

“So you have to sort of do that in the jury selection. A lot of times, you’re trying to find out what jurors expect as far as evidence in sexual assault.”

Often the evidence in a sexual assault may not include physical evidence. And crime scene investigators aren’t going to find absolute proof of the crime.

“That’s just not going to be the reality, nor is it practical in a lot of situations,” she said. “I’m reminding jurors that they can use their common sense.

“These crimes are done in secret. You’re not going to have an eye witness. You have to just rely on the story of the victim against the story of the person charged with the crime.”

That means painting the best picture you can, Wolf said, and getting the victim ready to tell her, or his, story.

And when things don’t go quite as planned, and the jury doesn’t return a conviction, the prosecutor has the unenviable task of trying to explain to victims that, just because a suspect was not convicted at trial does not mean the jury doesn’t find the victim believable.

“It just means the person was acquitted,” she said. “It’s a difficult type of case. We let people know ahead of time that it’s going to be a difficult situation and we help them through that. For these victims of sexual assault, they’re survivors already. A trial is hard, but what they’ve gone through already is that much worse. They know that, and we just reinforce that with them. We can get through this together. We try to make sure we’re making the best case we can from the beginning.”

In 2013, House Bills 2903, 3263 and 2779 were passed, which expanded leave time for victims and created the Sexual Abuse Protective Order to help victims achieve stable employment, steady income, and access to safety and justice, but Wolf said the justice part is a work in progress.

In court, in fact, defense attorney motions sometimes prevent prosecutors from even using the word “victim.”

“To me, it is contrary to the victim rights initiative. It does nothing to recognize those rights at all.

“There’s definitely trauma that goes through these cases and revictimization at trial.” Wolf said a lot of myths prevail about sexual assault that simply are not true.

“It is a very, very common occurrence for people to be sexually assaulted and very, very common for victims of sexual assault not to come forward,” she said.

“It’s very rare that people who have not committed crimes are found guilty and it’s very rare that people are falsely accused of those crimes.”

Wolf, like other advocates, says the emphasis where sexual violence is concerned, needs to be on prevention so there’s no need to bring cases like these to trial.

“We’re trying to speak to schools and kids and let them know that it’s not OK to be sexually assaulted,” she said. “You can come forward and the system can work for you. You need to report, otherwise it can continue to happen.”

Wolf said any member of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) is available to listen and help.

“Often people don’t know where to go,” she said. “They pick up the phone, but they don’t know even if it’s a sexual assault they’ve been through.”

Representatives of the District Attorney’s Office, The Dalles Police, Wasco County Sheriff’s office, Oregon State Police, Haven and the Department of Human Services can all help with those questions.

Advocacy

and Aid

HAVEN advocates play a variety of roles in preventing sexual violence or responding to it when it happens. Not least of these roles involves educating legislators.

Koch served on the state legislative work group that worked with the legislature to pass, among other things, the Healthy Teen Relationships Act, which took effect in January 2013.

The act requires all schools to adopt policies and programs addressing teen dating violence.

Once the bill was passed, program manager Anna Williams worked to provide information for the act’s “toolbox.”

“One of the key things that has happened in the last couple of biennia is that the state organization is a lot better organized in the capital,” said Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles.

Working with lobbyist Niki Terzieff, Koch and her counterparts around the state have visited the capital to educate members of the legislature through the Oregon Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

The changes have resulted in increased funding of domestic and sexual violence services, although funding is still only a fraction of what advocates say is needed.

HAVEN programs also work to help people who have experienced sexual violence. They are one part of the Sexual Assault Response Team, along with criminal justice, health and social services professionals who leap into action when a sexual assault is reported.

Gwen Paulson facilitates a support group for survivors of sexual assault every Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

HAVEN members have also helped on the Warm Springs reservation where sexual assault — particularly assault by nontribal members — is much more prevalent than in the general population, Paulson said. Changes in the Violence Against Women Act are now allowing Warm Springs to serve as one of three national pilot programs for allowing tribes to prosecute nontribal offenders.

Mercedes Hill is a co-located health advocate who works in conjunction with North Wasco Central Public Health and the Oregon Department of Human Services to identify and help victims of sexual violence.

“Our goal is that we are helping to screen universally, rather than just screen women with a history of domestic violence, so no one is missed,” Hill explained. That way, the women who are identified can be given a better understanding of what health benefits are available to them.

The topics surrounding sexual violence can be complex and HAVEN can serve as a contact point for more information or help related to any of the topics discussed here. Call HAVEN at 541-296-1662, or find more information online at www.haventhedalles.org.

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