Removing Shame and Fear from Reporting Sexual Assault
Authorities say there's a strong support network available for sexual assault victims in New Jersey. More perpetrators may pay for their crimes if victims feel supported.
He couldn’t wait anymore. Rhett Hackett wanted the man who sexual abused him to finally pay for his years of crimes. Hackett was ready to do something about it.
The Sicklerville man picked a date—on that date, he would first disclose to his parents what had happened to him through his teens at the hand of a neighbor. Then Hackett would immediately go to the police and file a report, knowing there is no criminal statute of limitations on sexual assault.
Just before the appointed day, Hackett checked up the abuser, posing as a telemarketer, to make sure the man still lived at the same address.
The man had just died. He would never pay for what he had done to Hackett.
“So that was pretty much the end of that,” Hackett said. “You have waited from age 12 until 33. You’ve gone that whole entire time, building up to get to the point of confronting him, and he goes away. It’s just awful.”
While the circumstances might change, the outcome of this story isn’t unusual for sexual assault survivors. Most rapists will never face prosecution, let alone prison.
“We just did an analysis—out of every 100 rapes, only about three rapists will spend even a single day in prison,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Prosecution relies on victims
Several factors collude to make prosecuting a sexual assault case more difficult than other serious crimes. Much of it starts with under reporting—police never hear of half of all sexual assaults.
But it’s also a deeper issue of perception. A victim’s fear he or she won’t be believed. Survivors’ reticence to follow through on charges against someone they know. And the difficulty of proving a nonconsensual encounter.
“By definition, sexual assault is a unique type of offense. It is the criminal side of an activity which when consented to, is normal and natural and positive,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel said. “But when not consented to, it’s devastating emotionally and physically.”
The classic media depiction of rapes is a stranger dragging an unsuspecting woman in a dark alley and assaulting her there, resulting in injuries, a police report, a speedy court case and punishment. Case closed.
The reality is usually much different. The overwhelmingly majority of sexual assaults—73 percent—are committed by someone known to the victim. And the body is a forgiving vessel, meaning most sexual assaults produce few injuries.
Forensic exams, also known as rape kits, document biological evidence and injuries. But the kits can only do so much; evidence can prove sex but usually cannot speak to consent.
“It’s difficult when there are no witnesses, even if we can prove that something did happen,” said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. “If it’s just a man and woman alone in a room, and if he says it was consensual, we have to work to prove that it wasn’t.”
Victims can also be their own worst enemies when it comes to getting justice.
“When a report is made, we’re committed to prosecution,” Laughlin said. “But it gets difficult if the victim becomes unsure or becomes unwilling to cooperate. If they know the perpetrator, sometimes they’re unwilling to move forward with pressing charges.”
Tara Laracuente is a sexual assault survivor who likely will never see her two perpetrators prosecuted, for reasons similar to what Laughlin describes.
“My abusers were not prosecuted because I did not report them,” she explained. “I was afraid to because of what it could do to my family.
“I only told my mom about the abuse from my uncle, but I never told her that her husband was also abusing me. She did not believe my sister, so I feared she wouldn't believe me either.”
That silence enveloped Laracuente for a decade before she finally began disclosing to her sister and in an online forum.
“It was mostly fear that made me remain silent,” she said.
Fear—completely understandable, experts say, and something many perpetrators purposefully instill in their victims—complicates successful prosecutions.
A victim should not be forced to testify or prosecute if that course will re-victimize the person or cause psychological damage, Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said.
“It’s a very difficult process to go through,” Berkowitz said of reporting a sexual assault. “Many victims are afraid that they won’t be supported or they feel like they want to put events behind them and not deal with the criminal justice process.”
That’s a challenge New Jersey authorities are working to overcome.
‘100 percent care’ for victims
Reports of a sexual assault in New Jersey activate a Sexual Assault Response Team, known as SART. Made up of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a confidential sexual violence advocate and law enforcement, the team’s goal is both to support the victim in the crucial hours post-assault and begin building a case against the perpetrator, if the victim wishes. (Learn more about SARTs and their components.)
“The team approach in New Jersey really is second to none,” said Lynne Rybicki, the SART/SANE coordinator for Cape May County. “The team is specifically there to serve the victim with 100 percent care.
“Our issue is in getting victims to know these services, which include medical care, forensic evidence collection, counseling, medication and referrals for follow up care, are available. We have to make them understand they have access, no matter what the circumstances of the incident.”
Sexual assaults often are rife with confusion for the victim, especially if he or she knows the perpetrator. Old attitudes still exist that a relationship automatically implies consent or you need to show injuries to prove a sexual assault. They are just a few of the myths that surround victims of the crime.
“Years ago, marriage was considered permanent consent—it isn’t now, of course,” prosecutor Housel said.
The same goes for a dating relationship, or if the victim was “asking for it” by flirting, a classic defense against sexual assault.
Alcohol often plays a role in victims not coming forward as well. A person over the legal blood alcohol level cannot legally consent to sex under New Jersey law.
“When you’re dealing with teens, if there was alcohol present, they are fearful of being charged with underage drinking,” Rybicki said. “But it’s not going to happen. They need to know that. The issue we’re concerned about is the assault, not if they were under the influence at the time.”
Just as several factors complicate prosecuting sexual assaults, no one solution has all the answers. There is always room for improvement in reaching out to victims, in providing support services and in training police and medical personnel to deal with sexual assaults.
The SART team takes their key from past victims who have offered ways to improve services.
But the common thread woven through any solution is promoting a culture of absolute support for victims.
“When victims come forward, whether they want to file charges or not, there is a system in place to immediately begin providing support,” Rybicki said. “Not every case will go to trial. Not every victim will file a police report. But we can give them the tools they need to start healing, and that’s the most important thing someone can do after a sexual assault.”
This is part two of a series Patch will run during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For more on the series, including local resources and definitions of sexual assault, visit our Out of the Shadows: National Sexual Assault Awareness Month page.