Police, prosecutors approach sex crimes in new way

‘Survivors are feeling supported’

ALPENA–You are strong. You are a fighter. You are in control.

Sexual assault challenges those definitions we have of ourselves and of our communities, experts say.

April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, set aside to remind communities, even safe ones, that anyone, anywhere, can be a victim of sexual assault.

“We want to live in a world where our actions bring bad things, therefore if we change our actions, good things will happen,” said Jillian Ferguson, sexual assault program coordinator at Hope Shores Alliance in Alpena.

Though we, as a society, encourage ourselves to believe our actions determine our fate, sexual assault doesn’t work like that, Ferguson said. Assault happens not because of anything you’ve done. It happens not because a victim made the wrong choices, but because a criminal commits a crime.

A woman is at a party. She’s drinking, she’s dressed to look attractive. The perception in many people’s mind, according to Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black, is that, if something happens to that woman, it’s her fault. She should have dressed differently. She shouldn’t have been there.

That perception, Black said, completely ignores the blatant fact that, regardless of any decisions she made, she did not give permission to anyone to assault her. Society’s habit of blaming the victim for what someone else did to his or her body is one of the unfortunate facts that keeps victims of sexual assault from talking about what has happened to them.

After years of working with crime victims of all kinds, Black attests that sexual abuse is the most emotionally harmful kind of crime anyone can endure.

“In my job, I have truly never seen anybody who was more emotionally impacted by crime than an individual who has been sexually assaulted,” Black said. “It is without comparison.”

Countless cases of drug abuse and other crimes he prosecutes can, Black said, be traced back to childhood sexual abuse, victims turning to lives of self-harm to suppress the scars of sexual assault.

The emotional impact of the crime can be difficult to quantify when investigating a sexual assault charge. Traditionally, law enforcement has been trained to gather hard facts — the who, what, when, and where of a situation, Ferguson said. An investigation rooted in concrete, quantifiable facts is the key to getting to the truth of most crimes.

With sexual assault, however, tangible place-and-time facts are not the only pieces of evidence that need to be considered. New psychological research has given a name to the emotional aspects of a traumatic event: the neurobiology of trauma. That can inform law enforcement and prosecution decisions, as well as public perception.

FIGHT, FLIGHT … OR FREEZE

In seventh grade science, Ferguson said, we learn about the two responses to danger: fight or flight. Recent science shows, however, that at least one other human response is at play in moments of high stress. The third danger response — freeze — is experienced by more than 50% of survivors of sexual abuse during the time of their assault, according to Ferguson.

After an assault, victims who come forward are usually asked “why” questions: Why didn’t you run, scream, fight, ask for help? Victims might start to ask themselves the same questions, wondering why, if they see themselves as a fighter, they didn’t do something to help themselves out of the situation.

The reason, Ferguson said, is scientific: Their brains didn’t let them make that choice.

“Everything in our body is designed to keep us alive,” Ferguson said. “In that traumatic moment of intolerable stress, the brain decided that the best chance of survival was to freeze.”

Not only does trauma affect a person’s actions in the moment, it also changes how a person processes and stores memory, Ferguson said. The neurobiology of trauma affects the retention of facts, often causing the victim to be unable to give a chronological order of events.

“But what does get retained is proven to be accurate,” she said.

Hormones flooding the system as a result of trauma, either during the traumatic event or afterward, when recalling it, can lead to what seem like inappropriate responses, from a flat, emotionless face to laughter, responses that are outside the control of the survivor.

The emotional effects of trauma, before they were understood, often led to victims not being believed by law enforcement or juries. About 10 to 15 years ago, only about 24% to 52% of reports of sexual assault resulted in a written report being recorded by law enforcement, according to findings of studies published by the federally funded organization End Violence Against Women International.

A shift has occurred in the past 10 years, a shift seen in our own community. Victims of sexual assault are coming forward with their stories more often, and their cases are being treated with greater effectiveness in the court system.

BETTER-TRAINED PROSECUTION

In 2009, a total of nine felony sexual charges were reviewed by the Alpena Prosecutor’s Office, according to Black. Five years later, that number was 26. In 2018, Black prosecuted 78 charges of child sexual material, criminal sexual conduct, and other felony sexual charges.

The drastic increase can be attributed to multiple factors, from changes in law enforcement practices to changes in the community’s willingness to talk about the problem.

In recent years, police across the state have received training in the neurobiology of trauma. The have also learned techniques such as forensic interviewing, a method of talking to a child or traumatized adult that uses an understanding of the psychology of trauma to gather information about an incident in a sensitive, objective, and legally defensible way. The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan offers such training to law enforcement officers and prosecuting attorneys statewide.

PAAM trainers were invited to Alpena in May 2017, providing instruction to local police officers and the prosecutor and his staff.

Investigations beget more investigations, according to 1st Lt. John Grimshaw, commander of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post. As more victims have been emboldened to come to police to tell their stories, investigations into a possible assault have led to family members of the suspect and other contacts of the suspect coming forward with information of their own, often revealing long-hidden stories of abuse from years before and adding to the count of charges filed, Grimshaw said.

The standard for his department, Grimshaw said, is to investigate every allegation. It no longer should be expected that people making a claim of sexual assault are going to be discounted by law enforcement.

“People are starting to understand that they can come forward and that we will investigate and try to get a good conclusion for them,” Grimshaw said.

CHANGING COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS

Not only within law enforcement, but in the community as a whole, conversations about sexual assault are changing.

Black, who said he spends the majority of his time working with sexual assault cases, sees the stigma of sexual assault being erased.

“What we’re seeing is people coming forward with discussions about how they were sexually assaulted as a child for years and years and years,” Black said. “A lot of that stuff was a hidden secret that nobody wanted to talk about. It’s no longer so taboo.”

In October, sexual assault survivors met at Culligan Plaza in Alpena and told their stories, some of them for the first time. Years ago, those stories may have remained hidden secrets, something to be ashamed of. Now, however, victims are reacting to the help being offered by a supportive community.

Hope Shores services to victims sexual violence have increased by 43% over the last year, Ferguson said. The increase, she said, is not necessarily because more people are being assaulted, but because more people are accessing the help they need to confront and conquer the effects of their abuse.

A Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) was established in Alpena in 2016, a partnership between law enforcement, prosecution, the hospital, and Hope Shores to provide trauma-informed, survivor-led services following an assault. From the 2017 fiscal year to the 2018 fiscal year, SART responses have increased over 200%, Ferguson said.

“I think that just goes to show that, as a community, we’re getting better at identifying sexual assault, and we’re getting better at getting people the resources they need,” Ferguson said. “Survivors are feeling supported. That’s what our goal is.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.

Sex crime prosecutions

Number of felony child sexual material, criminal sexual conduct, or other felony sexual charges (multiple charges can be included in a single case) in each year in Alpena County.

2009: 9

2010: 19

2011: 23

2012: 32

2013: 65

2014: 26

2015: 61

2016: 44

2017: 30

2018: 78

Source: Alpena County Prosecutor’s Office