News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

June 28, 2014

Under-reporting of sexual assault just tip of iceberg

CDC report in 2008 shows 1 in 6 Hoosier girls victimized before graduating from high school

TERRE HAUTE — Out of the Shadows

Another in a continuing series of stories examining sexual assault and rape in Indiana

As a violent crimes investigator with the Terre Haute Police Department, Starla Neidigh is far more concerned about “getting my victims taken care of” than she is about crime statistics.

But she has no doubt the crime of rape is underreported. “We’re only touching the tip of the iceberg, I think,” she said recently.

Many rape victims don’t want to report because they’re concerned about the stigma.

“They think everyone will blame it on them,” she said of criticisms that can involve visiting a certain place, or being with a certain person, or drinking.  

“They see television and what rape victims go through on TV. They think it’s all going to be that way, that they’ll be the bad person and their reputation is going to be run through the coals,” she said. “I can’t sit here and say it won’t … because a lot of times you have to get on the [witness] stand and do this kind of stuff.”

Shawn Keen, assistant chief of detectives for THPD, agrees. “I think a great number of cases are not reported.”

Clark Cottom, chief deputy with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, sees the same thing at the county level.

He believes under-reporting occurs for a variety of reasons.

“Sometimes victims are embarrassed,” Cottom said. “In some instances, the perpetrator is related to them, either by blood or relationship.”

A victim might believe the rape was an isolated incident and perhaps won’t happen again, he said. In most cases worked by the sheriff’s department, the victim and perpetrator know each other, he said.

“We would just encourage people to report these kinds of crimes,” Cottom said. “We do have counseling agencies and support groups” for victims.

The reporting and under-reporting of sexual assault in Indiana — particularly as it relates to young women and men — is gaining greater prominence among some state legislators, including State Rep. Christina Hale of Indianapolis.

She and other persistent advocates are determined to bring the issue of sexual assault and rape out of the shadows.

Not only does Hale know of young women sexually assaulted, she was alarmed when she saw a 2008 Centers for Disease Control report found that one in six Indiana girls is raped by the time she finishes high school.

Through Hale’s tenacity — with the backing of such influential legislators as state Sen. Jim Merritt — a major, statewide study will begin soon to better understand the extent of sexual assault and its under-reporting, with a focus on adolescents.

•••

According to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data, Terre Haute reported 29 rapes in 2012, 17 in 2011 and 33 in 2010. Some of those might later have been determined “unfounded.”  

The Vigo Sheriff’s department investigated seven rape reports in 2012, eight in 2013 and two so far in 2014, Cottom stated this past week. In terms of sexual battery, it investigated 14 reports in 2012, 14 in 2013 and none so far this year, he said.

In 2012, the Terre Haute Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Clay, Sullivan, Vermillion and Vigo counties, indicated there were 41 rapes and a rate of 25.4 per 100,000 residents. Nationally, there were 84,376 rapes in 2012 and a rate of 26.9 per 100,000 people, according to the Uniform Crime Report.

In Terre Haute, the circumstances in which rape can occur are as varied as the victims. Rape cases might involve a husband and wife, or people who met on the Internet, Neidigh said.

“You can’t really let your guard down, especially if you are just meeting someone,” she said. “Social media has really, really hurt a lot of people. They think if they talk five or six times on the Internet, they know them. Then they meet someplace and everything goes bad.”

•••

Rape victims don’t have to report the crime to police, if they are unsure that is what they want to do.

Under changes to the federal Violence Against Women Act that took effect in 2009, sexual assault victims can seek medical treatment and an exam without mandatory reporting to law enforcement.

Before that change, if a rape victim went to a hospital for treatment after being raped, the hospital was required to report it to authorities, Keen said. That, in turn, might discourage a victim from seeking treatment because she or he didn’t want to pursue it through the criminal justice system.

But not seeking medical treatment or psychological counseling could mean continued physical and mental health problems, Keen said.

In Vigo County, victims can have anonymous rape exams done at both Terre Haute Regional and Union hospitals. Trained nurses collect evidence and make sure the victims’ medical issues are addressed. Regional has a forensic nurse on call 24/7.

The rape kit is labeled with an anonymous number and given to the appropriate local police agency with jurisdiction. In Vigo County, those kits will be kept for five years, which is the statute of limitations on the filing of criminal charges in Indiana.

“We are only required to keep them for 12 months under the law, but we keep them five years” as part of Vigo County’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) protocol, Keen said.

But by having a rape kit done, evidence is preserved for use in pursuing a criminal case in the future, when a victim might feel more ready to give testimony.

As required by state law, the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team and protocol are intended “to ensure the quick response needed to protect the victim and to preserve evidence.”

•••

Whether an individual reports to police or goes to a hospital, the protocol calls for either one to contact the Council on Domestic Abuse (CODA). “We want the victim to have support. The victim advocate understands the system and what all is going on, so she can explain to the victim her choices at that point,” including the anonymous rape kit, said Raeanna Moore, Vigo County deputy prosecutor.

Victims don’t have to talk to a CODA advocate if they choose not to.

Those involved with SART have tried to make the protocol as victim-centered as possible, Moore said. Even the rape kit is not an easy thing, and the process can take several hours, she said.

“They check you from head to toes for any piece of evidence they can find,” Moore said. “It’s a lengthy process. That’s why it helps to have a victim advocate there.”

Victims also could benefit from the FSA Counseling Center’s trauma survivors group, which meets once a week. There is no charge, and child care is provided. If someone has been raped and hasn’t reported it, they can still attend “to help them get through this,” Moore said. The group, which is for women, works with victims of domestic violence, rape and other violent crimes.

Keen believes there are many people who are afraid to report. “They don’t want people to know about it. That was the purpose of the SART process to begin with — first and foremost, that [victims] get medical treatment, even if they choose not to report,” he said.

Keen said in most of the rape cases he has dealt with, the victim knows and can name the suspect. “It’s rare that you would have this random person who didn’t know the victim,” he said. He’s been involved in investigations for 15 years and said he has worked only two cases in which the victim did not know the suspect.

Neidigh urges victims to report immediately and not wait. “If you wait a week or two weeks, most of the evidence is gone. If it happens, report it,” she said. Too often, victims call after they have taken showers and washed or disposed of clothing and bedding. “That is your physical evidence you really need to have to back up your story,” she said.

But even if evidence is gone, she advocates that victims report. “Even if it can’t go anywhere, and there’s not enough evidence to do anything, maybe the person who did this to you does it to someone else, and then there [are] two people against this one guy,” she said.

•••

There are times when what is initially reported as rape turns out not to be the case. Someone might make it up to cover their actions if they have been with someone they’re not supposed to be with, Neidigh said. “They have to come up with some reason, so they say rape.

“That’s disheartening for a lot of us because we put all of our time and effort into it and then it comes back that it’s not,” she said. Also, the person falsely accused has been interrogated or questioned.

“It upsets you,” Keen said, “because you are trying to investigate a crime, and we know there are real victims who don’t report it.”

It is important for investigators to be open-minded with each new case. “You can’t let it jade you,” Neidigh said, because the next person might be the victim of a violent crime.

And Neidigh is committed to those victims.

“You have to care about people to be in this line of work,” she said. “You’ve got to want to help people because that’s what we’re here for — to help people.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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