Despite #MeToo Movement, Sexual Assaults Remain Difficult To Prosecute

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.

Once.

Twice.

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.

Insufficient evidence 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."

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