I am evidence – real sexual assault cases are lagging

One of the longest running shows on American television is “Law and Order – Special Victims Unit” starring Mariska Hargitay and a terrific ensemble cast. The SVU investigates and hopefully solves heinous sex crimes in New York City. Unfortunately, real life SVUs are woefully understaffed, underfunded and behind.

It is not ironic that Hargitay has co-produced with co-director Trish Adlesic a documentary film called “I am evidence,” which focuses on efforts to remedy a US backlog of over 200,000 untested rape kits. That is not a misprint. The film is co-directed by Geeta Gandbhir and focuses on efforts in Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Only eight states require the testing of every rape kit – Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. This boggles my mind as women who have been sexually assaulted and beaten went to great pains to be tested after being raped.

Two of the focal points of the film are Wayne County (Detroit) Prosecutor Kym Worthy and a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland named Rachel Dissell, who each brought attention to the backlogs in their two cities. With a spotlight on these travesties, gained funding and oversight, they are making huge headway in their local problems. But, it is more than local as many of the DNA samples have revealed serial rapists and repeat offenders  across state lines.

Many of these untested kits are ten years and more overdue. It also became clear by not testing these kits, more woman were raped. One rapist was a truck driver who raped many women across the country for years. And, in one chilling example, one serial rapist would abduct, hold, abuse and kill his victims. When arrested, the police found multiple women’s bodies in his home. One of the victims was able to escape an earlier abduction.

Letting the previous paragraph sink in will likely make you ill. The scarcity of resources is appalling. It also led to a prioritization of cases often based on race and notoriety of the victim. Worthy noted rape kits should be tracked, since these victims went to a lot of effort and remained unclean for hours as they were subject to tissue and semen sampling and verbal examination. One women said she was made to feel guilty as she answered questions – why were you there at that time, eg?

Worthy noted “If you can track a package when you order something from Amazon, then certainly you should be able to track a victim’s rape kit through the criminal justice system.” Is that too much to ask?

The good news is the progress that is being made. It is never too late and it goes without saying lives are being saved, some dignity restored to the victims and future rapes can be avoided. Please download “I am evidence,” and watch this important film. We owe it to the current and potential victims. And, as one oversight committee member noted, the success rate on testing the kits made every dime well spent as the DNA data leads to convictions and takes a rapist off the streets.

 

Women have made huge strides, but why are too many still being raped and harassed?

Two different stories this week frame an important issue. First, I read an article that said 15% of undergraduate women who attended the University of Texas at Austin had been raped. That is appalling.

Second, Bill O’Reilly has been re-signed under another Fox contract. This is after a story of five settlements of sexual harassment claims were unearthed by The New York Times. It should be noted the network who signed him let go Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, for similar sexual harassment issues, but felt so badly they did not do it for “cause” and he was punished with a $38 million go-away settlement. Since O’Reilly has a following, his sexual harassment must be less relevant to the network.

These two stories come on the heels of the US Marine Corp sexual harassment scandal and the Baylor University football team rape scandal through a hostess recruiting program for players. And, we should not forget our President has admitted on at least two occasions that he sexually harassed or assaulted women because of his celebrity and power.

Women and girls are maltreated around the globe. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s powerful book “Half the Sky” graphically describes sexual slavery,  trafficking, mutilation, domestic violence, rape and second class citizen treatment. But, we have sexual slavery, trafficking, domestic violence, rape and harassment here in the Western world, too. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote of this in his book “A Call to Action,” which is an excellent follow up to the Kristof/ WuDunn book.

Western women have made huge strides in gaining more opportunity, yet the level of sexual maltreatment has seemingly risen. Perhaps, it is due to more rapes and harassment being reported. Or, maybe it is  due to women being framed as sexual objects though advertising, marketing and entertainment media. Sexual harassment and rapes continue to be a huge problem for the military (even before the Marine scandal) and college campuses.

What do we do about this? We need to say very loudly this is not right. We need to  come down hard on leaders and institutions who have looked the other way. We need to vote with our feet and not attend universities who don’t have their act together.

We should not vote for politicians who have maltreated women. I am still stunned that our President was elected after more of his sexual harassment was revealed. In my view, there were several reasons not to vote for him, but how could anyone do so after the Howard Stern interview and Access Hollywood tape became public?

To lessen this maltreatment, it has to have more than women’s voices behind the effort. All of us need to stand up to people and organizations that maltreat women or look the other way. Women hold up “half the sky,” so we all benefit by treating women like we want to be treated.

 

 

The Invisible War – Kirsten Gillibrand has it right

Whether you have seen the Oscar nominated documentary film called “The Invisible War,” I think most Americans are becoming aware of a terrible problem in our US military. Per a 2011 Newsweek article, it is more likely that a female soldier will be sexually assaulted by one of her fellow soldiers than killed in battle. And, to be complete, it is not just women who have been sexually assaulted. In 2011, there were 3,158 cases of sexual assaults reported. By the Pentagon’s own records, they report that there were over 19,000 such assaults that year. And, of those 3,158 cases, only 575 cases were processed.  In 2012, the number reported increased to 3,574, a six percent increase with estimated total assaults pegged at 26,000.

The Senate Oversight committee led by Senator Carl Levin has helped pass requirements that make it in a crime for a supervisor in the chain of command to retaliate against a victim who has reported such a crime and would not allow the military command to overturn a conviction. This requirement was supported by Senator Claire McCaskill as well, who is a former prosecutor. Yet, they stopped short of stripping the oversight from the chain of command, per the recommendations of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Major General Gary Patton, the head of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office who opposed removing the chain of command oversight. In other words, the supervisor who may have permitted an environment of harassment to occur, would still have a strong say in whether a case is warranted.

An interesting mix of senators, led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York feel that is inappropriate oversight. She has led a mix of fellow Democrat and Republican senators to propose that the JAG attorneys be responsible for sexual assault cases and take the oversight away from the chain of command. In their mind, the fact that so few cases are ever reported is a direct result of fear of retaliation, fear of destroying a career, fear of  inappropriate but typical ridicule over the victim’s possible promiscuity, and just plain physical fear of being harmed. Gillibrand has pointed out that the chain of command oversight is part of the problem and should not be included as part of the solution. She notes that this issue has been identified as a concern since the late 1980s and we still have the numbers of sexual assaults, in total and that go unreported, we have today.

I agree with Senator Gillibrand. I have three comments in support of her group’s contention. First, having been in Human Resources, sexual assault cases (or any harassment cases) would definitely not be left to the chain of command with all other employers. The supervisor or manager may be part of the problem, so the alleged victim has an avenue to reach out to HR and the case will be (or it better be) handled with confidentiality and care. I have written earlier how organizations tend to take on the personality of its leaders. The leaders may have created an environment where sexual harassment may be more normative. I have also witnessed a protective turf mindset when sexual assaults or harassment claims occur. For obvious examples, you need look no further than Penn State University and the Jerry Sandusky issue or the Catholic Church, where leaders were both more interested in protecting the reputation of the entity and less about the victims.

Second, Albert Einstein, I believe said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome.” It is obvious the chain of command oversight is part of the problem. They need to be part of the solution by doing things better, but they should not have oversight over sexual assault cases. There will be a tendency to brush over things and manage the issue rather than address it. If you do not believe me, reread the references to Penn State and the Catholic Church.

Third, having just written about my father, who served in the Korean War, he would be offended by the numbers of sexual assaults. And, when Senator John McCain, who is one of the most famous prisoners of war in Vietnam, says he would be hard pressed to recommend to a friend’s daughter that she go in the military, that speaks volumes. To me, it insults the honor of these men and women, to not address this issue.

Folks, we owe it to all women, but especially our female soldiers, to protect them from their fellow troops. To be brutally frank, this is a disgrace to our military and country. Men and women should be supported in their cause to risk their lives to serve our country. I understand the points made by Levin, McCaskill, Hagel, Dempsey and Patton, I just don’t agree with them. I applaud the steps they have recommended. Yet, we need to take this last major step proposed by Senator Gillibrand and do the right thing.