By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Beaver County Times, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Daveen Rae Kurutz reports, “Prosecutors in Pennsylvania and throughout the country say they still find some of these cases difficult to litigate, especially when there’s little forensic evidence.”
Beaver County, Pa.
It’s a universal story.
A teenage girl has sex with a boy from school.
But the second time, she’s more reluctant, asking him to stop. But he continues. This scenario unfolded in a Beaver County community this month, police reported.
Despite the prominence of the #MeToo movement, there’s still a mindset of “not here.”
“Sexual assault reports happen more frequently than people think they do,” said Beaver Police Sgt. Kelly Hogan.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, at least 114 rapes and sexual assaults were reported in Beaver County between 2013 and 2017, the most recent year with available information.
Of the 33 police departments that reported data to the FBI, only 11 — one-third — didn’t report an incident of rape.
A 17-year-old Beaver County girl recently told her parents, medical examiners and police she was coerced into sex earlier this month by a friend she met at school.
The boy forced her to have sex at least once before, too, she said, but that September Saturday encounter in a friend’s apartment was more hostile.
“He held her down until he was finished,” her father told The Times.
The Times doesn’t reveal the identity or identifying details of victims of alleged sexual assault.
A few days later, she told her parents about the incident, then went to a county medical examiner for treatment, including measures to prevent possible sexually transmitted diseases.
She reported the assault to police, but no charges were filed; investigators said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the case. Police believe the encounter was consensual.
The teenagers — both minors — were dating, and investigators say the father refuses to accept the fact that his daughter is sexually active. After multiple interviews with all involved, prosecutors and police are certain no crime was committed.
Law enforcement told both parties to avoid one another, and school officials chose to separate the two. But she’s a cheerleader and he’s a football player, so avoidance isn’t easy.
The alleged victim’s parents say the boy has already tried to contact their daughter multiple times, in one letter he confessed his love for her — even after he told police she falsely accused him of sexual assault.
The incident is well-known throughout the county, her father said. It went viral on social media after school administrators sent an email alerting staff to the situation.
“It made it into other school’s football locker rooms,” the father said. “Her name is being brandished. She’s mentally messed up; she’s hiding. I’m worried about drugs and drinking. As a recovering addict myself, I know the signs and symptoms.”
Difficult to prosecute
The #MeToo movement has encouraged sexual assault survivors to come forward in record numbers nationwide, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, known as RAINN. After Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year, RAINN saw a 338 percent increase in hotline traffic.
In 2017, about 42 rapes per 100,000 residents were reported in Pennsylvania. With its population of 12.8 million, that means police investigated about 5,400 rapes statewide last year.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania and throughout the country say they still find some of these cases difficult to litigate, especially when there’s little forensic evidence.
“It’s one of the most difficult cases to prosecute because, mostly, you’re relying on the credibility of the witness,” said Millie Anderson, a legal advocate at the Women’s Center of Beaver County. “If it goes to trial, you have jurors who have their own background, beliefs and may believe the myths surrounding sexual assault, so there can be a lot of victim blaming.”
Beaver County does have a sexual assault protocol in place. When local police receive an allegation, they’re instructed to facilitate a meeting with the alleged victim, the Beaver County district attorney’s office and a women’s center representative to determine if charges will be filed.
The women’s center and the DA’s office also receive federal grant funding to coordinate and improve response to sexual assault cases in the county. Anderson facilitates that team.
“One of the things that came from it was a sexual assault protocol for police that has been refined and improved over the years,” she said. “It helped train law enforcement how to collect evidence and prosecute these cases and immediately involves the women’s center.”
But police are still not required to complete any trauma-informed training before interviewing victims of sexual assault, something advocates say is vital. There’s also a clear need for uniform countywide implementation of the protocol.
It’s unknown how many sexual assault cases local police departments clear without making an arrest; the county doesn’t have that data readily available, and FBI data is uncertain and self-reported by police departments.
But according to a WESA public radio investigation published earlier this year, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police deemed 31 percent of the cases it investigated in 2017 as “unfounded,” a term used to describe cases that are determined to be false or baseless. Experts agreed that number was high.
“I wouldn’t say it’s common to clear cases here because of insufficient evidence,” Anderson said. “But it does happen.”
Even if a case does go before a jury, it’s unlikely to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, especially when the case involves two minors. Plea deals often result in reduced charges and light sentences.
“It can feel like a slap on the wrist to victims and their families,” Anderson said.
The incarceration rate is extremely low among those who commit sexual assault.
According to RAINN statistics, for every 1,000 incidents of sexual assault:
* 230 are reported to police
* 46 lead to an arrest
* Nine are referred to a prosecutor
* 4.6 are incarcerated
Because of this, many victims choose not to report their assault to police at all.
U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 2005-10 indicate about 20 percent of sexual assault victims chose not to report the crime to police out of fear of retaliation, and 13 percent believed police wouldn’t do anything to help.
Beaver County victims who are uncomfortable reporting to the police can still take a forensic exam and anonymously store that evidence for future use, though.
“We have a protocol with the medical center in Beaver where victims can come take a forensic exam,” Anderson said. “The exam will be collected by detectives and can be kept for up to two years so the victim can come forward during that time.”
‘A consistent response’
While local police have reported 114 rapes through FBI reports, statistics indicate the number of people sexually assaulted is actually much higher. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five women have been raped in their lifetimes, many before they’re legally adults.
A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that one in 16 U.S. women report their first sexual experience was forced or coerced, with survivors facing long-term consequences such as increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases, endometriosis and menstrual problems.
“We know that the first time a survivor discloses their assault, the reaction they get from police sets the tone for their healing journey,” said Erinn Robinson, RAINN’s press secretary. “If they receive a less-than-supportive reaction, or they don’t feel believed, that can be highly detrimental. We’ve seen a lot of police take the defensive, asking ask how much the victim had to drink or what they were wearing. We really encourage police forces to assign a way that works for them.”
The Times reached out to several local police departments, and while some said they understood the sensitive nature of these cases, at least two officers said they’d never heard of trauma-informed questioning or training.
“We need a consistent response to rape victims,” said women’s center Executive Director Darlene Thomas. “We need that from law enforcement and schools, in juvenile cases. There are isolated individuals who are doing a really good job, but we need that consistency.”
False rape allegations are extremely rare — ranging from 2 percent to 10 percent of all reported cases — and almost never result in serious consequences for the falsely accused, but victims are still reluctant to come forward.
Teenage victims, in particular, sometimes face the decision to leave school or see their assailant every day.
The women’s center offers long- and short-term programs for every school in the county related to sexual assault, consent, bullying, harassment, sexting and other issues facing today’s students.
“We’d prefer if it was always preventative,” said Ann Colella-Murray, education/training coordinator for the center. “There are some schools we have really concrete relationships with, and others don’t request as many programs, but we’re in every school in some capacity.”
Beaver Area School District Superintendent Carrie Rowe said the district sometimes creates individualized safety plans for students. Those involved in a serious conflict may be asked to minimize all direct or indirect contact, she said, resulting in class schedule changes or between-class escorts.
If those plans are violated by one party, it can result in detentions, suspensions or, in severe cases, expulsions. There are limited circumstances in which the school district can punish behavior that occurs outside of school, Rowe said. Even if a student is facing criminal charges, the school will make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
“Discipline is meant to be instructive and not just punitive,” Rowe said, “We must determine if what happened outside of school is causing a substantial disruption within the school. Just because a student is arrested does not mean anything is going to change in the school, but where there is a concern for the safety of others, then we would certainly consider those cases.”
Parents often become advocates for their child’s safety.
Colella-Murray noted that at one local middle school, parents are trying to have a student they say sexually assaulted their daughter removed from an extracurricular activity.
“Nothing was done criminally, and it started out consensual,” Colella-Murray said of the incident. “At some point, maybe he wanted to go further than she did, but the school doesn’t feel like it has grounds to remove the student. So she’s struggling and has to deal with it.”
It’s imperative students in these situations have a trusted adult at the school, someone who will listen and offer guidance, she said.
Social media has created an additional layer to police and school investigations, police said.
It’s more difficult to prevent the spread of false information and protect students from harassment.
“People using social media and/or texting have to understand that once an explicit image or text is sent, you have no control over where it may end up,” said Hopewell Township Police Chief Brian Uhrmacher. “There is now a record of conversations and/or images. While an investigation of this type of crime can require extensive effort to bring to a successful conclusion, the heinous nature of such crimes makes any effort necessary worth it.”
Robinson said RAINN encourages all students, especially victims of assault, to take stock of their following and make sure they have necessary privacy settings in place.
Colella-Murray said it’s unrealistic to ask students to stay off social media altogether.
“That’s a lifeline to them,” she said. “But we can all tell you about cases of kids dropping out of school to avoid that day-to-day contact who are still harassed on social media.”
Ultimately, local and national advocates say there’s still work to be done, even in the post-#MeToo era.
“I think there’s more open discussion in the media, but I don’t think we’ve seen a significant cultural shift,” Thomas said. “We’re still asking victims to consider if they wouldn’t have been assaulted had they done something different.”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.