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Rape is a brutal crime shrouded in secrecy and myth. Those sad facts have become more evident in recent weeks with news reports of rape investigations in Missoula involving female University of Montana students alleging attacks by UM football players.

The word “rape” is so ugly that people avoid using it, yet the news from Missoula touches families across the state because thousands of Montana’s sons and daughters are on that university campus. It also reminds us that rape is a crime in every community.

It’s difficult to determine how many rapes or other sexual assaults occur because so many of these crimes aren’t reported. However, the number reported to the Montana Board of Crime Control by law enforcement agencies statewide is a fraction of the number of reports received by victim service organizations. Last year, the Montana Board of Crime Control received 307 reports of “forcible rape” from law enforcement. The Board of Crime Control website notes that agency reports might not be complete.

Meanwhile, at least 1,217 sexual assault victims received services last year through the organizations that receive funding from the Board of Crime Control. Among those victims, 110 were in Yellowstone County and 278 were in Missoula County. Victim service organizations that don’t get Board of Crime Control money aren’t counted in this report, according to Stacye Dorrington, acting chief of the Community Justice Bureau in Helena. In Billings, the board helps fund victims’ services in the city attorney’s office, the Yellowstone County attorney’s office and the YWCA.

“The number of people who access our programs is always way higher than reports to law enforcement,” said Kelsen Young, executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Victims who seek help from private agencies, such as the Billings YWCA or from Domestic and Sexual Violence Services of Carbon County, can remain anonymous and they need not report the crime to law enforcement.

Victims who decide to report to law enforcement also can receive assistance from the Yellowstone County attorney’s office or the Billings city attorney’s office on matters such as getting an order of protection or applying for crime victim’s compensation. These services are available to victims who cooperate with law enforcement, regardless of whether charges are filed, said County Attorney Scott Twito.

Erin Lambert, manager of Billings YWCA services for domestic and sexual violence victims, said her staff assists males and females of all ages, including many adolescents. She estimates that 80 percent of rape victims know their attacker.

The “stranger rapist” is unusual, Twito agreed.

“Rape is a crime unlike other crimes,” Lambert said. “In a homicide, the suspect can’t say the victim wanted it. In sexual violence cases, it’s very common for the suspect to say the sex was consensual.

“He said, she said” rape cases create extra challenges for prosecutors, but don’t preclude prosecution.

“We look at things that can corroborate what the victim has said,” Twito said. Corroborating evidence would include medical exams and toxicology reports, which are only useful if conducted soon after the crime. Investigators will interview possible witnesses who saw the victim and accused before and after the attack.

“We don’t want the victim to stand alone,” said Ann Marie McKittrick, the deputy county attorney who prosecutes most felony sex crimes in Yellowstone County.

Twito is particularly concerned that sex crimes against children be reported to authorities and has seen “an alarming number” of such reports.

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“We literally review each of these cases on a case-by-case basis,” Twito said. “I’ve had cases where I believed the victims but had to have that terrible conversation to tell them we didn’t have enough evidence to get a conviction.”

McKittrick meets personally with sex crime victims, often more than once. “We keep them informed about their case,” she said.

“Most women and men don’t report sexual assault,” said Mitzi Vorachek of Domestic and Sexual Violence Services of Carbon County. “People are very reluctant to report it for a number of reasons, and one is fear that they won’t be believed.”

“The fact that these young women reported it shows great courage,” Vorachek said, speaking of the recent Missoula revelations.

As Young said from Helena: “This is an opportunity for people to reflect on what’s happening in their communities.”

“We need good citizens to stand up and we need organizations to work together,” Twito said.

The process described by Twito and McKittrick gives us hope that sex crime victims won’t be victimized a second time when they report to Yellowstone County authorities. No innocent person should ever be convicted of a sex crime and no victim should ever be dismissed because of the myths that rape reports tend to be false.

Every Montanan should know that help is available to victims of sex crimes. Check the box above to learn more.

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