News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

May 31, 2014

Revealing new studies, and persistent advocates, are bringing the issue of sexual assault and rape out of the shadows

TERRE HAUTE — Growing up in northern Indiana, Christina Hale and her friends felt safe and secure in their neighborhoods.

“It was an era you played outside all day, and everyone’s parents looked out for you. There was a common sense of safety about our community,” said Hale, now 42 and a state representative from Indianapolis.

But as a teenager in the 1980s, she became increasingly aware that some of her friends hadn’t been safe after all.

She learned of girls being sexually assaulted, including a friend who was in eighth grade and went to a drinking party with an older sibling.

Her friend drank too much, passed out and woke up with an 18-year-old male on top of her, raping her. “She was never the same after it,” Hale recalls. “It shocked and scared all of us.”

What Hale later discovered was that such incidents occur more frequently than she knew. Few were ever reported, allowing the issue to lurk in the shadows. It was rarely discussed openly.

That, however, has begun change. And Hale is finding that Indiana could have an even bigger problem than most.

Nightmare numbers

Indiana consistently ranks as one of the worst when it comes to sexual violence against women, according to national surveys. “That tells us there is a problem,” said Jonathan Plucker, former director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. “The question is, what is the real scope of the problem — that’s what we don’t know.”

Despite greater awareness today about sexual violence, more open discussion and a “no means no” campaign, under-reporting of the crime continues.

Hale says that when she was growing up, it wasn’t even discussed. “Date rape wasn’t always viewed as a crime, and certainly, victims themselves didn’t even view it as a crime,” she said. Hale describes a “fraternity culture” that existed.

In recent years, Hale learned of a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control indicating that Indiana ranked among the worst in the nation when it came to high school girls saying they’d been forced to have sex. Other studies also indicate a problem with sexual violence in Indiana.

“It certainly didn’t crystallize in my mind what kind of a widespread problem this was until I was an adult,” Hale said. When she saw the 2008 report indicating that one in six Indiana girls is raped by the time she finishes high school, “I almost fell out of my chair.”

Now an elected state legislator, she finds herself in a position to shed more light on the subject. She’s leading a charge to bring greater awareness to the issue, and she’s finding support.

Through Hale’s tenacity — with the backing of such influential legislators as state Sen. Jim Merritt — a major, statewide study will be conducted this summer to better understand the extent of sexual assault and its under-reporting. The study, to be funded by the Criminal Justice Institute, was enacted as an amendment to the state’s Lifeline Law.

(That law provides legal protection for those under age 21 who have been drinking and call 911 to report a medical emergency — including sexual assault and drug overdose).

Hale, who is serving her first term in the Indiana House and is running for re-election, believes the study is a step in the right direction and is optimistic that the issue is starting to get the attention it deserves. She also emphasizes that boys, and young men, have been victims as well. For male victims, “we just have no data there,” she said.

As the study gets under way, Hale’s goals are to connect victims to services they need to recover from their trauma, and to seek better ways to prevent acts of sexual violence. When the study is completed, she will examine the results for possible ways to craft relevant legislation and public policy.

Since she began talking publicly about the issue as a state representative, the feedback has been substantial. “I can’t tell you how many people from different walks of life — fathers of daughters, young women, men —  have said, ‘This was my story — and I really appreciate you doing something about it.’”

Consistent indicators

Hale traces her passion for the issue to that 2008 CDC report, which indicated that Indiana ranks second-worst in the nation when it comes to high school girls saying they’d been forced to have sex. That’s something she finds “completely unacceptable.”

Nationally, 10.5 percent of high school girls surveyed reported they had been physically forced to have sexual intercourse against their will. In Indiana, the percentage was 17.3 percent, putting Indiana at second in the nation, with 42 states reporting, according to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

A December 2011 CDC report, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, estimates that about one in five women in Indiana has been a victim of rape or attempted rape at some point in her lifetime.

The same study also stated that 18.3 percent of women and 1.4 percent of men in the U.S. have been victims of completed or attempted rape in their lifetimes, including alcohol- or drug-facilitated rape.

A study prepared by IU’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy in January 2012 also addressed the issue. Titled, “Sexual Violence Prevention in Indiana: Toward Safer, Healthier Communities,” it points out: “There are a limited number of sources of data on the prevalence of sexual violence and rape in Indiana.”

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute has committed $65,000 toward better defining those numbers through the study mandated by legislation.

Some people, though, are skeptical of statistics suggesting Indiana’s rate of sexual assault against young women is so high. They are reluctant to voice their doubts publicly, but most acknowledge it’s a complex issue worthy of further study.

According to Hale, “If it’s going to cost $65,000 to conduct this study to verify those numbers, I think that is money well spent. And, if it turns out we don’t have this problem, then I think we’re all going to celebrate that.”

She believes it’s a minimal, necessary investment, no matter the result. “It’s our responsibility to err on the safety of our children,” she said.

What most people close to the issue agree on is that young people are at increased risk in today’s digital age.

Technology — including laptop computers and cell phones — gives perpetrators more access to potential victims and enables them to commit crimes in different ways, Hale said. “We know this is a problem that will only get worse unless we take action now. … Indiana has the opportunity to get ahead of that curve.”

The impact of social media and new technology on sex crimes against children is part of the pending study.

National focus

Rape and other crimes involving sexual violence are gaining increased prominence not only at the state level, but at the federal level. In January, President Obama ordered a White House task force to look at the problem on the nation’s college campuses, and on April 29, it issued its report and recommendations. In addition, the administration later listed 55 colleges — including two in Indiana, IU-Bloomington and Vincennes University — with open “sexual violence” investigations.

“I think it’s progress when we have people at all levels of government looking at the issues, because for a long time, we didn’t have anybody that seemed to care,” said Jessica White, interim chief executive officer of INCASA, the Indiana Coalition on Sexual Assault. “It will be a struggle for all of them, but I commend them for trying, and I think it brings greater visibility to the issue, and that certainly can’t hurt.”

‘It takes a lot of courage …’

In Vigo County, Raeanna Moore serves as the deputy prosecutor for sex crimes and crimes against children, duties she assumed near the end of 2010. Between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2013, the office filed 17 rape cases, a few involving minor victims. That figure includes the crimes of rape and of criminal deviate conduct, because as of July 1 in Indiana, both will fall under the criminal definition of rape.

In the same time period, Moore filed 29 cases of sexual misconduct with a minor, or statutory rape (without force). The victim, who typically will say sex is consensual, is not old enough to legally consent.

Moore supports the state study that will take place this summer. “I think it’s good to do the study to find out what is going on and what can we do to encourage reporting,” she said.

“I do think rape is under-reported no matter what the age group, whether we’re talking about minors or adults.,” she said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the stigma, the fact that the victim doesn’t feel protected during the judicial process.”

For example, the defendant has the right to remain silent, never having to say anything in court. The victim, on other hand, if the defendant doesn’t take a plea agreement, “has to be ready to go into court and describe in detail the very worst day, the worst event, in her entire life, in graphic detail, in front of strangers.

“And that is very hard to do,” Moore said. “It takes a lot of courage to come forward, knowing that in the end, this may be what you have to do.”

Moore has seen the studies that indicate Indiana is worse than other states when it comes to rape. Whether they are accurate, she said, “I have no idea.” She said she would have to review each study and its protocols to formulate a judgment.

Blaming the victim

Regardless of numbers, Moore and others who deal with the crime and its consequences say under-reporting is a problem, and increased reporting will require a societal change.

“Our society tends to blame the victim instead of putting the blame on the alleged perpetrator,” said Aimee Janssen-Robinson, an associate dean of student affairs at ISU. “We make comments like, ‘She was dressed that way, she must have been asking for it. She was drinking. She chose to go there. She didn’t say no. She didn’t fight back.’”

Victims don’t want to be put through that, so they don’t report. They also tend to blame themselves.

“It’s not their fault — it is [the fault of] the individual who attacked them,” Janssen-Robinson said. “We need to get [victims] to recognize that it is not their fault.”

Safety in awareness

Malea Crosby, a sexual assault survivor-turned-advocate, is passionate about the issue — bringing it out in the open and even talking it “to death” to create awareness. Only then will the problem be confronted.

“We have a huge issue on our hands. People just don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about.”

Hale believes government’s job No. 1 is to provide for public safety. “Our children are not safe from sexual violence in Indiana, and that’s just unacceptable. … Perhaps Indiana can take the lead for really finding evidence-based solutions for the children in our state.”

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

 

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