Speaking freely 

How an increase in sex crime numbers may be good

After Jenny Daniel was raped, she didn't know where to go.

"He was way stronger than I was," she says of the incident, which occured more than 10 years ago. "I didn't even fight back."

About 20 at the time and living in a small town in Michigan, Daniel didn't tell her friends, let alone police. Because she froze and didn't physically resist, Daniel felt responsible for the attack.

"That was a big, huge piece of my healing, to learn that was normal," says Daniel, who now supervises the Missoula Crime Victims' Advocate Program.

click to enlarge The Missoula YWCA created its “Silent Witnesses Project,” pictured above, to represent women killed by acts of domestic violence in the area. Local advocates say this year’s increase in sex crime numbers doesn’t reflect a crime wave, but rather more victims willing to report incidents to law enforcement. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • The Missoula YWCA created its “Silent Witnesses Project,” pictured above, to represent women killed by acts of domestic violence in the area. Local advocates say this year’s increase in sex crime numbers doesn’t reflect a crime wave, but rather more victims willing to report incidents to law enforcement.

In the first seven months of this year, Missoula law enforcement saw a spike in domestic and sexual assaults across the board, logging 23 sex offenses, up from seven during the same period in 2008. Meanwhile, domestic violence citations spiked from 130 to 182. Police also tallied 10 rape charges, up from one the year prior (two individuals were responsible for eight of this year's charges).

Advocates caution that these rising numbers aren't necessarily indicative of a crime wave. Instead, what appears to be a surge in domestic and sexual violence is likely a reflection of a community finally tuning in to victim rights, and encouraging survivors to speak up.

As local arrest rates go up, the Missoula YWCA, the University of Montana Student Assault Resource Center and social service providers across the state say they aren't seeing a jump in demand.

"We are as busy as we've always been," says YWCA Associate Director Kris Holmes.

But as a growing awareness helps forge a stronger safety net between law enforcement and advocates, more survivors are telling their stories.

"People feel safer about coming forward," Daniel says.

A decade ago, the greatest barrier blocking victims from approaching police was fear they wouldn't be believed, says Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, a national education and advocacy organization. As awareness about domestic and sexual abuse spreads, he says law enforcement and the media have developed a better understanding of the issue.

"Victims are sensing that the culture is changing," Berkowitz says.

That means that as actual crime rates appear to be holding steady, sex crime reporting nationally is up by more than 10 percent since 1993, according to the Bureau of Justice.

Advocates say the system still needs work, but it's making important strides. One of the biggest areas of improvement is in how law enforcement treats those who have been assaulted or abused.

"Compared to 10 years ago or 15 years ago, we have seen a shift in the way victims of sexual assault are receiving services," Muir says. "We may be a little bit more sensitive."

Part of that shift includes the decade-old First Step program, which works to serve victims reluctant to talk with law enforcement. The program now offers the option of a forensic exam and police interview in one hospital visit, streamlining a process that once involved multiple interviews in various settings.

The Missoula Crime Victims' Advocate Program, which has grown from one part-time employee in 1985 to seven full-time staffers, also takes credit for encouraging people to come forward.

"My guess is that they're finding us and feeling more encouraged about going for help," says Linda Perkins from the agency.

Reporting to law enforcement still doesn't solve the larger problem of eliminating these types of crimes. One federal report estimates that one in six women and one in 33 men is sexually assaulted, with domestic violence rates even higher. According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported and 15 of 16 rapists will never do time.

"I would seriously doubt there was only one sexual assault last year," says YWCA's Holmes, pointing to past arrests in Missoula.

Holmes and other advocates point to the same traditional barriers for victims: Most know their attackers and fear an invasive post-assault physical exam and a drawn-out court trial. They're also afraid of any backlash.

"You know," says Holmes, "[questions like], 'What was she wearing? Did she drink too much?'"

Muir acknowledges the criminal justice system, which is adversarial by design to protect rights of both the accuser and the accused, can be tough on victims. "It continues to put us at odds with victims in some circumstances," he says.

But with Missoula's network of advocacy and social service agencies better communicating with law enforcement, those situations are on the wane.

"Missoula probably has one of the better sexual assault responses in the state," says Nicole Gray, Outreach Coordinator for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Daniel sees it every day through her position with the city's advocate program. She says sometimes the support is as simple as telling a victim they didn't do anything wrong.

"You just see them melt," she says. "I mean, I'm getting goose bumps just saying it now."

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