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The Island Packet - Sexual assault: What kind of village will we choose to be?

In the movie “Spotlight,” Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney, made the profound statement: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Garabedian’s statement calls us to task as a community — speaking to our collective moral and ethical responsibility to protect children from abuse.

Recent articles and columns have shed light on the issues of sexual assault, which begs the question: What kind of village will we choose to be? While it’s easier to demand more from our Solicitor’s Office, we must go further and demand more from each other.

Here’s the reality: The jury that is made up of community members like you and me are the ones tasked with the responsibility of making the final verdict. The power of justice lies in our hands. So before we solely blame the Solicitor’s Office for the low conviction rate, are we willing, individually and as a community, to do the following?

▪ Understand that a minority of sexual assault cases produce any types of physical evidence. We live in the era of “SVU” and “CSI,” but real life is not Hollywood. When we always expect DNA evidence to determine guilt for sexual assault cases, we will always have a low conviction rate. This expectation limits our ability to think through the other evidence that can point to guilt.

▪ Change our victim-blaming mindset. Rape is rape, period. Whether you are a high school dropout, are sexually active, or you were drinking, or showed a multitude of other behaviors that our society relegates to someone “deserving” of rape, it’s all part of the toxic mindset that allows perpetrators to roam free. Remember that a “bad choice” is not permission to be raped.

▪ Stop using the justification of false reporting as the reason for low prosecution. I get it. It’s easier to believe that most of these cases are falsely reported by “devious” women than to believe that we have rapists walking around in our neighborhood. If you have read the story of victim Daryan Payne, you would be wise to question the logic of false reporting, given the challenges that rape victims face when they do report. There is a reason why sexual assault remains the most under-reported crime, based on FBI statistics. Methodologically rigorous research finds that the false reporting for sexual assault is between 2 percent to 8 percent, which mirrors false reporting of other crimes.

▪ Put your money where your mouth is. If we want a higher prosecution and conviction rate, are we willing to provide the kind of resources that law enforcement and prosecutors need to effectively investigate and prosecute? The staff caseloads at the Solicitor’s Office are way above the best-practices standard. Additionally, the importance of specialized training is critical and costs money. No investigators or prosecutors become good at prosecuting these cases without the proper training and experience.

▪ Hospitals must invest in training their nurses to be certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners. There is only one SANE-trained nurse working in one of our local hospitals in Beaufort County, and none in the other four counties of our region. Data showsthat SANE programs increase prosecution and conviction rates. Local hospitals have been reluctant to invest in training, often citing the low number of reported sexual assaults as justification. This July 10-14 in Beaufort, Hopeful Horizons, in partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina, is hosting SANE/SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) training. This is an opportunity for hospitals in Beaufort County and surrounding counties to send their nurses to be trained at absolutely no cost.

▪ Invest in prevention programs that target the root causes of gender-based violence. Sexual assault and domestic violence are 100 percent preventable. That is good news. Young people need to learn the harmful messages that our culture teaches them about masculinity and femininity that breed violence. They need to learn respect, compassion and equality as norms in relationships. To that end, Hopeful Horizons, in partnership with CAPA(Child Abuse Prevention Association), provides evidence-based violence-prevention programs in middle and high schools in Beaufort County in a limited capacity. I would challenge school districts across the state to make these programs mandatory.

Changing our culture takes time, but it is our only chance to prevent sexual and domestic violence.

Since 2003, I have worked with countless sexual assault victims, both children and adults. I have worked within the system that includes all the entities serving victims of these crimes. I have witnessed the progress of agencies collaborating and coordinating services.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone and his staff have been on the front lines with us, implementing a multi-disciplinary team approach to pave the way for better prosecution results for child-abuse cases.

This model can and should be replicated when handling adult cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.

This requires that victim-service organizations like ours, law enforcement and the Solicitor’s Office treat one another as allies even when we don’t see eye to eye.

It takes a village, and our village is responsible. I hope we will choose to be a village that works together to support victims and to ensure that offenders are held accountable. We owe it to victims like Daryan Payne to be a better village.

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