Gazette opinion: The terribly underreported violent crime

2014-04-17T00:00:00Z 2014-04-17T06:53:04Z Gazette opinion: The terribly underreported violent crime The Billings Gazette
April 17, 2014 12:00 am

The series of home-invasion rapes that occurred last year in Billings put our entire community on alert. People started locking doors — all the time — and hundreds of women turned out for a self-defense class organized by the Billings Police Department at Montana State University Billings.

The Griego rape trial The Gazette covered extensively for the past two weeks is unusual in many respects. For one, the prosecution had to prove that the accused was in fact the man who attacked the four women. There was no question that these women had been attacked.

More often in rape cases, the victim and offender know each other. The prosecution must prove that what occurred was a rape, not a consensual act.

“Very rarely do you see a sexual assault trial where the defense asks two questions of the victim,” said Erin Lambert, program manager of Billings YWCA Gateway House. “About 80 percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker, which is also why as important as personal safety and self-defense measures are, they are not practical in most cases.”

“We know that sexual assault and dating violence are happening to teens,” Lambert said.

While our awareness of sexual violence has been raised, let’s consider the larger effect these crimes have on our community.

Last year, YWCA of Billings staff and volunteers accompanied 117 rape victims to Billings Clinic. The YWCA also provided supportive follow-up services to these survivors of sexual violence.

Rape reports triple

Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, which serves Carbon and Stillwater counties, helped 34 rape victims last year. That was a tremendous increase from 2012 when the organization assisted 13 sexual assault victims. Between 2006 and 20012, the number of sexual assault victims seeking help never exceeded 13 per year, until last year.

Kelly Heaton, DSVS executive director in Red Lodge, notes that the increase in clients coincides with a tripling of sexual offenses against adults and children reported to law enforcement in Carbon and Stillwater counties over the past three years.

The number of calls to assist rape victims has increased significantly in the past two years, said Lambert, who has worked at Billings YWCA for 15 years.

“When I started, we were getting 80 a year,” she said. Asked if she thinks there are more rapes now, Lambert said she believes more people are reporting.

Although the vast majority of sexual assault victims seeking YWCA assistance are female, Lambert said that in the past two years several male victims have called for help. It is even more difficult for teen boys and men to report being victimized by sexual assault, Lambert said.

According to the Billings Police Department’s annual report, 57 rape reports were received in 2013, about half the number reported confidentially to the YWCA. Although YWCA numbers have increased in the past two years, the number reported to police has fluctuated: 46 rapes in 2009, 31 in 2010, 48 in 2011, 69 in 2012 and 57 in 2013.

Victims don’t have to file a police report to receive YWCA assistance or to see a trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner at Billings Clinic’s emergency department.

Timely medical exam

At Billings Clinic, the victim can receive needed medical care, including medications to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. If the victim chooses, the specially trained nurse will conduct an examination that collects evidence for criminal prosecution. The evidence is preserved and stored by the Montana Department of Justice, so the case could still be prosecuted even if the victim isn’t ready to file a police report immediately.

“The exam must be done within five days of the assault, preferably sooner,” Lambert said, adding that pregnancy prevention medication must be administered within 72 hours.

We may fear a stranger invading our homes and attacking as we sleep. But the more frequent sexual assault scenario involves an attacker the victim knows and allowed into the home. We must learn to protect ourselves and our families against both types of types of attack.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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