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Alpena County’s sex assault rate exceeds state — which may or may not be a good thing

Alpena County either excels at supporting sexual assault survivors or has a serious sex crime problem.

Over the past five years, Alpena County police received more than 300 reports of sexual assaults — including rape, unwanted sexual touching, and other forced sex acts — making sex assaults the most prevalent violent crime in our area, according to Michigan State Police data.

The data also suggests we might have more of a problem than other communities: The assaults reported here over the last five years work out to 1,102 assaults per 100,000 residents, double the statewide rate (Alpena County’s per-capita rate shows more assaults than actually reported because we have fewer than 100,000 residents).

The News analyzed data from 20 Michigan counties both similar and dissimilar to Alpena County in population, demographics, geography, and proximity to major highways.

Alpena County’s per-capita assault rate ranks significantly higher than Wayne, Kent, and other metropolitan counties, and higher than most rural counties The News examined.

Many local advocates for sexual assault survivors celebrate that data, attributing Alpena County’s high rate to successful efforts to support sexual assault survivors and make them feel safe coming forward. Sex assault is a severely underreported crime, according to criminal justice experts, but Alpena County saw a jump in reports around the time those local efforts got underway.

Other evidence, however, indicates more reports could simply mean more assaults happen here.

For one, other counties analyzed by The News have for years offered survivors resources similar to those in Alpena County, yet still post lower rates of reported sexual assault.

For another, research in other parts of the country has shown rural survivors tend to report sex crimes less frequently than those in urban areas because of obstacles unique to rural areas, such as the lack of privacy in small towns. In 2003, the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women detailed multiple studies finding rural counties record rates of sexual assault at least equal to — if not higher than — urban areas, especially if the count includes reports to advocacy centers, as well as police.

People ask all the time whether rising numbers mean more sexual assaults or more-supported survivors, said Clarissa Potter, rapid rehousing coordinator with a survivor advocacy center in Ingham County.

“While we all have our best guesses and gut feelings, the truth is, I don’t have evidence to prove it, one way or another,” Potter said.

Check out the interactive graphic below showing reported sexual assaults from various counties reviewed by The News. Story continues below graphic.

‘WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHERE THE CEILING IS’

Because the State Police data is self-reported by local police agencies and not independently verified, police caution against community-to-community comparisons. But the state database offers the most comprehensive crime information available to the public.

And that data shows that, even in parts of the state where survivors find programs similar to those in Alpena County — and similarly passionate local advocates — many counties post much lower rates of reported assaults.

Washtenaw County, for example, employs many of the same tactics to support survivors, yet posts a rate of reported assaults less than half Alpena County’s rate.

Demographic differences between the two counties — Washtenaw County is more populous, diverse, and wealthy than Alpena County — partly explain the disparity, said Barbara Niess-May, executive director of the SafeHouse Center, an advocacy organization in Ann Arbor.

In fact, all urban counties analyzed by The News have lower rates of reported assaults — ranging from 729 assaults per 100,000 residents over the past five years in Ingham County to 463 per 100,000 in Washtenaw County.

Meanwhile, Wexford County, another rural county statistically similar to Alpena County and where survivors have access to similar supports, has a higher rate of reported assaults than we do.

But the rural-urban split can’t entirely explain the differences.

In Ingham County, where hundreds of women and girls have accused former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar of assault, rates of reported assault ranked higher than most rural counties reviewed by The News.

In rural Delta County, anchored by Escanaba, similar in population to Alpena, resources for survivor support mirror those in Alpena County, but Delta County’s rate of reported assaults falls far lower. That may simply reflect that Alpena advocates for sexual assault survivors do good work, said Erin Viau, executive director at Escanaba’s Tri-County Safe Harbor.

Still, researchers have documented unique challenges faced by rural survivors of sexual assault.

Small-town families may discourage reporting to police to avoid public scrutiny and for fear the community — who often know and like the perpetrator — will believe that person instead of the survivor, according to a 2003 report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Survivors rarely report assaults by people they know — and, in rural areas, the likelihood of being raped by an acquaintance, friend, or even family member increases significantly, the report indicated.

Regardless of the reason for the differences in the data from county to county, assaults happen far more often than police reports show, Washtenaw County’s Niess-May said.

“We don’t even know where the ceiling is,” she said.

Police discover some sexual assaults, especially of children, years or decades after they occur while investigating other reported assaults, said 1st Lt. John Grimshaw, commander of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post. Police data also reflects assaults reported to the police by mandated reporters such as teachers and social workers, not just survivors, Grimshaw said.

“It’s a heinous crime,” Grimshaw said. “There’s no excuse for it. It should all be reported.”

‘WILLING TO SPEAK UP’

Hope Shores Alliance, an Alpena-based sexual and domestic violence advocacy center, “is a big deal” in the state, according to Sarah Rennie, executive director of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Alpena’s rate of reported assaults doubled in 2013, shortly after Hope Shores became one of six agencies in the country chosen to participate in a federal program to improve sexual assault response. Since then, the Alpena County rate has consistently far exceeded that of the state, according to State Police data.

“We knew that sexual assault was happening in our community, but nobody was talking about it,” said Sandra Pilgrim-Lewis, Hope Shores director at the time and now project manager with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’s Division of Victim Services and a national and international speaker on sexual violence.

Hope Shores — then called Shelter Inc. — received guidelines, training, and $450,000 from the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women.

During the four-year project, Hope Shores leaders gathered input from the community, changed its name, provided access to forensic examinations of sexual assault survivors, and helped form a sexual assault response team, which coordinates police, prosecutors, medical professionals, and others in their responses to sexual assault.

Advocates say that work helps survivors feel more comfortable taking their stories to police, which explains the higher numbers.

“Does it mean it’s perfect and sexual assault is gone? No,” Pilgrim-Lewis said. “But it means that people know and acknowledge it’s there and are willing to speak up.”

Whether that’s true or not, “it comes down to, why are so many people sexually assaulting other people?” said Valerie Williams, the current executive director of Hope Shores.

Eradicating sexual assault can’t be only the job of judges, prosecutors, or police chiefs, she said. Fixing the problem of sexual violence — even while celebrating successes — means challenging built-in thinking, supporting survivors unquestioningly, and committing to rooting out and eliminating behaviors that make people think they have a right to someone else’s body, Williams said.

“We are” responsible for stopping sexual assault, Williams said. “And by ‘we,’ I mean the entire community.”

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