LIMA — According to national statistics, one in five women will be the victim of a sexual assault during their lifetime. One in 71 men will suffer a similar fate.
While ever-changing reporting guidelines at the state and federal level make it difficult to get a handle on the exact number of sex-related crimes that occur annually in Allen and surrounding counties, local experts who deal with the individuals behind those statistics are convinced education and awareness are the keys to reducing numbers across the board.
That message is being amplified during Sexual Assault Awareness month, recognized nationally since 2001 in April as a way to “enhance survivor support as well as to celebrate the strength and resilience of the survivors with whom we have the honor of serving,” according to one local expert.
Ryn Farmer is the director of Day One at Crime Victim Services of Allen and Putnam counties. The agency focuses on the detection and prevention of sexual violence to usher victims of sexual trauma through myriad legal and social issues.
She said a growing number of victims of sexual violence have stepped forward to report their attacks in recent years and attributes that trend to increased awareness and education efforts that start with middle school students and continue onto college campuses.
“We’ve seen a pretty significant increase in cases the past two or three years,” Farmer said. “Unfortunately, we also know there are a significant number of adult victims that don’t report their attacks to law enforcement. Many are afraid; some have been threatened by their perpetrators” to remain silent.
“We want people to know that adults can go to a local hospital and get a sexual assault exam performed without having to report it to law enforcement,” Farmer said. “The test will be labeled as ‘unnamed,’ but law enforcement officials can still get the evidence processed. Sometimes victims will come forward years later. In Ohio, the statute of limitations for rape is 25 years, 30 years if there is DNA evidence.”
Allen County Prosecuting Attorney Juergen Waldick said the overwhelming number of rape and sexual assault cases handled by his office are new offenses. He said there has been no discernible trend in the volume of rape cases seen by prosecutors in recent years.
“The numbers seem to come and go. Sometimes we don’t have any cases for a while, then we might get a bunch in a month. But the numbers have been fairly steady,” he said.
The prosecutor said a push several years ago by former attorney general and current Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made it easier for prosecutors to track older rape cases.
“Years ago rape kits weren’t being administered (to collect DNA) if we didn’t have a suspect. When DeWine was AG, he pushed for testing to become more important because we were getting DNA samples from all defendants” that were being sent to Ohio prisons, Waldick said. Increased testing meant an increase in identifiable suspects.
Waldick is not convinced, however, that increasing numbers of rape victims are stepping forward to report their attacks than was once the case.
“I don’t know that’s necessarily true,” the prosecutor said. “How do you know what percentage of rapes are being reported? You can’t. All I know is that the numbers have stayed fairly flat.”
Majority of women know their attackers
Statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show as many as 80% of rape victims knew their attacker. Fifty percent of female victims report being raped by an intimate partner, and 40% identify their attacker as an acquaintance. Eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work.
Lima attorney Carroll Creighton routinely accepts cases as a court-appointed defense attorney. He has seen an uptick of late in rape cases allegedly involving family members. “I’ve got three of those types of cases right now,” he said.
Waldick agreed that sexual attacks on family members or acquaintances seem to be on the rise.
“Statistically, more often than not the perpetrator is known by the victim — be it a boyfriend, a family member or just someone they know,” Waldick said. “Our office gets involved after we’ve been notified of a sexual assault, be it from law enforcement, the hospitals, children’s services or other mandatory reporters.”
Once crimes of sexual violence are reported and investigated, prosecutors are faced with some difficult decisions.
“We don’t want to re-traumatize people at trial if we don’t have to. We don’t want to make them have to re-live what happened, especially if they’re children,” Waldick said. “We always take into account the wishes and desires of the victim when it comes to taking a case to trial and we’re always looking for the best possible outcome. When plea deals are made, they’re always made with the victim in mind.”
Waldick said sexual abuse cases are handled by his office much the same as any other case.
“We look to see if there enough evidence to convict somebody. It’s just more difficult with sexual assault and rape cases because there are normally no direct witnesses. Those crimes are typically carried out in private.”
Two decades of progress?
Danielle McClure is the director of student success and Title IX coordinator for students at the University of Northwestern Ohio. She works with students and staff at the Lima university to keep them abreast of guidelines as they pertain to sexual harassment and abuse.
McClure said during the administration of former President Barack Obama, colleges and universities were mandated to begin the implementation of awareness protocols and reporting mechanisms to address sexual harassment and sexual assaults on their campuses. Those protocols were to be in place by the end of 2016.
“As students were made more aware of what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t, we started seeing more and more reports” of inappropriate sexual behavior, McClure said. “Does that mean there was an increase in the number of acts taking place? Probably not. But from our end, seeing the numbers go up is a good thing. That means our program is working.”
McClure said the while UNOH is not a typical college campus, “our students have been receptive to what we’re presenting to them. They’re more aware of what’s going on around them.”
Staff and students alike are trained in bystander intervention and other techniques aimed at reducing sex-related, unwanted conduct.
“I feel we are making real headway. More people are open to talking (about sexual harassment or assault), and more people are open to reporting it. I believe we are in a better place than we were five years ago,” McClure said.
By the numbers
Alaska is far and away the national leader in reported rapes per 100,000 residents with 161. Michigan is second with 76.9. New Jersey boasted the lowest rate in 2018 with just 16 forcible rapes per 100,000 citizens while Ohio, with 45.3 cases per 100,000 residents, ranked 25th in the nation.
According to the Office of Ohio Criminal Justice Services, an average of 60 rapes took place annually in Allen County between the years 2011 and 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Rape cases reported in Mercer and Hardin counties during that time averaged eight per year, with roughly seven such cases in Putnam County annually. Van Wert County saw an uptick in rape cases beginning in 2015 and continuing through 2017, boosting its seven-year average to 10.
The Allen County Sheriff’s Office files reports with the state Bureau of Criminal Identification detailing various classifications of crimes committed in the county annually.
For 2019, the sheriff’s office listed 24 sex-related offenses, 15 of which were identified as rapes. The other nine were for some other form of sex offense, ranging from gross sexual imposition to the use of minors in sexually-oriented material.
One year earlier, there were just two incidents that were classified by the reporting officers as rape. Twenty other sex-related cases were filed as involving lesser offenses.
“Once a case is investigated, those classifications can change,” said Lt. Andre McConnahea, public information officer for the sheriff’s department. “As a case moves from the investigating officer to the detectives to the prosecutor, the charges can become more or less serious.”
Still room for improvement
Farmer said that while there has been progress in the ongoing battle against sexual abuse, more education and support systems are needed.
Many victims still don’t report their attacks, she said, because of a social stigma attached to victims of sexual violence. It’s an antiquated mindset that social workers and counselors work tirelessly to overcome.
“There absolutely has been a stigma,” said Farmer. “Sometimes victims (of sexual abuse) have been threatened by their own families with being ostracized if they report an attack. And we still see survivors of sexual assaults being ‘victim blamed’ in some instances,” she said.
“That’s why we are trying to educate individuals to provide them with awareness and assistance. We do a lot of work in the schools, starting with middle school students and continuing into high school and college, where we teach things such as bystander intervention or the bystander effect.”
Intervention, said Farmer, is aimed at college-aged students and is designed to teach young adults how to safely intervene and/or distract potential perpetrators in public situations, such as a bar. The bystander effect, she said, “is the presumption that someone else will step in” to head off a potential assault.
The Crime Victim Services agency operates a Crisis Hotline that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Farmer said it provides an opportunity for anyone seeking help during a time of crisis to find a friendly shoulder to lean on.
“We often get survivors who call needing support but parents call to ask questions, friends call to ask for advice about what to say to a friend who needs support,” the director said. “The crisis line is both for survivors who need support but also for those loved ones and friends who want to support survivors and need help knowing how.
Farmer added, “In 2019, we served 448 survivors of sexual violence. At Crime Victim Services, we believe communities thrive when all members prevail over trauma and support one another with empathy and respect.”