'Start by Believing' campaign explores underreporting in cases of sexual assault

Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 6:20pm

University of Michigan leaders gathered Thursday to collaboratively explain the underreporting of sexual assault — both nationally and at the University.

For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the University of Michigan Department of Public Safety and Security and the University Health System, along with six other Washtenaw County organizations, launched the Start by Believing campaign on campus, part of a national public awareness initiative created by End Violence Against Women International.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 68 percent of assaults are never reported and only 2 percent of rapists ever spend time in prison.

The 2015 Campus Climate Survey found that 22.5 percent of female undergraduates at the University of Michigan experienced nonconsensual touching, kissing or penetration, yet in the same year only 172 incidents were reported, according to the Office for Institutional Equity’s second annual sexual misconduct report.

EVAWI is a nonprofit founded in 2003 by Sergeant Joanne Archambault, a retired San Diego Police Department officer, to improve criminal justice and community response to gender-based violence. The organization provides training and technical assistance for law enforcement agencies investigating sexual assault and domestic violence cases.

According to Detective Margie Pillsbury, head officer of the University Police’s Special Victims Unit, the discrepancy between real and reported cases can be attributed to the neurobiology behind trauma and sexual assault. Many victims of traumatic events cannot think rationally during and immediately after the event due to cellular damage in neurological circuits. The temporary damage helps the brain manage with potentially life-threatening events like rape, but it inhibits their ability to logically explain the circumstances. For this reason many people, including law enforcement officers, dismiss rape survivors’ stories as nonsensical and incomprehensible. This is secondary victimization, which discourages the victim from pursuing the issue further.

Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse Center, said misconceptions about the justice system can also influence the decision of whether to file a report or not.

“Some people think that if it happened 72 hours after the assault, you can’t report it. Of course you can,” she said.

According to Tim Johnson, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University Health System and a women’s studies professor at the University, long-term problems for sexual assault survivors include ongoing physical and psychosocial concerns that may last a lifetime.

Thus, Start by Believing aims to transform society’s negative attitude by affirming a victim’s story, accelerating rehabilitation and expediting the justice process.

Niess-May said simply listening is a key step in ameliorating the situation.

“Sometimes what (sexual assault survivors) say and how they say it is almost incredulous,” she said. “But in the end, you need to listen and not ask a lot of questions.”

Niess-May also explained that sexual assault survivors are unlikely to remember details about the situation, like victims of car accidents. Asking too many questions to a person who just experienced trauma, she said, is counterproductive.

“The survivor has been through trauma, and just like if you were in a car accident, it might be harder to remember, ‘When did the wheels squeal?’ or ‘When did the glass break?’ or ‘When did the safety (air)bag deploy?’ ” she said. “You don’t remember in what order that all happened and why it happened or what precipitated it all. And that’s the same thing for a survivor of sexual assault.”

According to Niess-May, the partnership between Start by Believing and the various Washtenaw County organizations began after a SafeHouse volunteer learned about the initiative at a conference and contacted the organization’s partners, including DPSS, about it. They responded enthusiastically and spread the idea all over the county to the point that on April 6, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners proclaimed Washtenaw County the nation’s first “Start by Believing Survivors of Sexual Assault” county.

“The University of Michigan police really ran with it,” she said. “The officers there said, ‘This is what we really need to be implementing in our community.’ ”

Sexual Assault Awareness Month at the University began with SAPAC on the Diag on April 1, where SAPAC Peer Education program volunteers educated the community on consent and self-care.

On April 6, the National Start by Believing Day, the participants of the 38th annual Take Back the Night rally marched around the campus demanding an end to sexual violence.

Pillsbury, also one of the guest speakers at Take Back the Night, stressed the importance of officers having a basic understanding of trauma and engaging thoughtfully with survivors.

“When we’re interviewing a survivor of sexual assault, we understand that it takes a ton of courage to come forward,” she said. “We try to build a rapport with them and set their minds at ease.”

She explained the role that building a rapport with the victim plays in the process of holding assailants accountable.

“We try and make doing an interview with them as least intrusive or difficult as we can,” she said. “We usually find that building a rapport with people and acknowledging what they’ve been through goes a long way in just helping us get the information that we need from them … We want you to be OK, that’s the first and most important thing.”

Susan Kheder, executive director of Patient and Community Engagement at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and Livingston hospitals, echoed the sentiment. She stressed the importance of law enforcement, hospitals and local advocates working together to help survivors.

“For those that have been raped, obtaining immediate care to address any health issues, as well as to collect forensic evidence, is so important,” Kheder said. “At the same time, the sooner the individual can be connected with the local resources and advocates to assist with counseling, health management, legal advocacy and short- and long-term safety issues the sooner the recovery process can begin.”

There are two hospitals that are partners of Start by Believing, the University Health System and St. Joseph Mercy Health System. According to Johnson, health care professionals play a crucial role in helping sexual assault survivors recuperate, especially Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners who carry out medical forensic care of the patient.

LSA senior Laura Meyer, SAPAC volunteer co-coordinator, said because of efforts like Start by Believing, she has seen positive change in campus attitude.

“There is a generally greater awareness of SAPAC and its services on campus when we are out in the community, and the volunteer coordinators have received even more outreach from community members and organizations who are eager to partner with SAPAC,” she said.

Meyer also urged students to attend workshops and know their rights in order to spread sexual assault awareness even further.

“Our Peer Education and Bystander Intervention and Community Engagement programs do incredible work reaching out into the community to educate and engage students,” she said. “Additionally, I would encourage everyone to educate themselves on their rights as students by reading the revised policy and by researching at Know Your IX, an education and advocacy organization focused on Title IX.”

Meyer said each of us can make a difference in preventing sexual assault cases and helping survivors.

“Students should be ready to engage their communities in conversations about sexual assault and sexual violence by believing and supporting survivors, centering the voices of survivors, and respecting the agency and choices of survivors,” she said.