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Activists, survivor discuss ways to fight sexual assault

If someone sexually assaults you, yell, “Fire!,” Abbey Podbielski learned growing up.

“If you yell ‘rape,’ nobody will do anything,” said Podbielski, an Alpena resident and a survivor of childhood sexual assault.

Every year, Alpena County sexual assault survivors disclose dozens of rapes and other sex crimes to police, advocates for sexual assault survivors, family members, and others. If national statistics hold true, those reports represent only a fraction of the assaults actually occuring in the county.

In recent years, Alpena County leaders secured grants, provided training, and collaborated with other agencies to more effectively care for survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.

Still, sexual assault — Alpena County’s most-prevalent violent crime — won’t stop unless the whole community takes responsibility for ending it, Podbielski said.

If Alpena wishes to do everything it can to stop sexual violence, coworkers need to learn to speak up when colleagues brag about their abusive habits, and sons need to learn their fathers will go to jail if they mistreat women, Podbielski said.

Children need to learn it’s OK to say no. People need to learn sexual violence is the fault of the person committing the violence, not of the survivor.

Sexual violence won’t stop unless survivors know their community has their back and potential offenders know such crime won’t be tolerated, Podbielski said.

“How do we stop it?” she said. “We stop it from the bottom up.”

‘I WISH I WOULD HAVE KNOWN EARLIER’

As a 13-year-old, Podbielski felt loved when a 25-year-old man paid her special attention. It wasn’t until she went into therapy as a young adult that she knew his actions constituted rape.

“I wish I would have known earlier that that wasn’t OK,” Podbielski said. “How did they not teach me that?”

Children should be taught — directly, and through the way the community responds to assault survivors — that they have the right to make choices about their own bodies, Podbielski said.

Even the youngest children can learn they don’t have to accept an unwanted hug from a relative or a touch from a family friend. Playground aggression and teasing shouldn’t be brushed off as a sign of affection, teaching girls to look at cruelty as something to be craved, she said.

At the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena, a program for children addressing sexual abuse makes both kids and staff uncomfortable.

“You have to make them uncomfortable so they know what to do,” said Jennifer Dingman, the club’s unit director.

At least one of those uncomfortable conversations at the club resulted in a child sharing information that led to Child Protective Services removing the child from an abusive home, according to Dingman.

Peer advocacy teams may soon appear on local high school and college campses, thanks to a grant recently secured by Hope Shores Alliance, an Alpena-based organization supporting survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in Northeast Michigan.

Young people accused of sexual crimes also need support, Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski said.

Especially in a rural community like Alpena, mental health professionals willing to work with young sexual offenders can be hard to find, she said. But many of those young people will grow up in the community, potentially reoffending or passing along their behaviors to another generation.

Muszynski said she’s looking for a program addressing young sexual offenders to copy in Alpena.

‘CAN WE TALK ABOUT RUINING LIVES?’

“We need to stop saying the criminal justice system is the only response to sexual assault,” said Valerie Williams, executive director of Hope Shores. “If it stops there, it is literally like a sliver of the whole pie.”

With only a third of sexual assaults reported to police, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the job of stopping sexual assault falls into the lap of the community — a job it can accomplish through showing solidarity with survivors, intervening in an assault, and speaking up when a friend, coworker, or stranger minimizes or even aggrandizes sexual assault, Williams said.

Survivors often hear the message that they did something wrong by being assaulted, Williams said. That perspective can be amplified on social media, where users often worry more about the abuser than the survivor’s lifelong trauma.

“Nobody ever chimes in and says, ‘Wait a minute. Can we talk about ruining lives for a second?'” Williams said.

Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski recounted a sexual assault trial two years ago in which the jury found the defendant not guilty, despite DNA evidence.

Afterward, social media commentators attacked the survivor, with the worst comments coming from other women, the sheriff said.

A community determined to end sexual assault won’t make such comments, he said.

If survivors hear a more supportive message from their community, “other victims, should it ever happen again — and it will — will have the strength to say, ‘I’m a victim, as well, and I need to do something about this,” Kieliszewski said.

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Concerted efforts by multiple area agencies in recent years have upped the region’s response to sexual assault and increased its leverage in prosecuting perpetrators, advocates for sexual assault survivors say.

As one of only six agencies chosen for a 2011 federal progam fighting sexual violence, Hope Shores boosted its efforts to educate the community about sexual assault and streamline its process for connecting survivors to resources needed to feel safe talking about what happened to them.

Reports of sexual assault to Alpena County police more than doubled in 2013, shortly after the program began, and have remained at the new high since.

Advocates attribute the county’s high rate of reported assaults — twice that of the state — to the positive effects of the program. A News investigation found that could be true, but it could also be true more assaults happen here, as other Michigan counties with similar resources have lower rates of reported sexual assault, and research from other parts of the country show rural areas post higher rates of assault.

But Northeast Michigan has gained respect from advocates statewide for its work.

In 2016, Hope Shores and multiple other Northeast Michigan entities created a Sexual Assault Response Team. A partnership between law enforcement, prosecutors, medical centers, and other groups that respond to sexual assaults, the team analyzes how agencies support survivors while gathering as much information as possible to supplement police investigations.

Area police and prosecutors also learned to conduct effective sexual assault investigations during local training sessions led by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards in 2017 and 2019.

Several years ago, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program introduced forensic examinations of sexual assault survivors to the region. Exams conducted by SANE nurses increase sexual assault prosecution rates and convictions, according to the National Institute of Justice.

“The best thing I see our community doing,” said Williams, the Hope Shores director, “is asking how it can do it better.”

Get help

If you or someone you know has been affected by domestic or sexual violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673), Hope Shores Alliance at 800-396-9129 or HopeShores.org, or visit RAINN.org.

If you would like to tell your story publicly to help others understand, The News is willing to listen. Call us at 989-358-5693 or email jriddle@TheAlpenaNews.com. The News does not identify survivors without their permission.

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