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Advocates urge public to start by believing sexual assault victims

This is a Start by Believing pledge card that will be available on April 8-14 for the local Start by Believing campaign. Submitted graphic

One way Stevens County can try and reduce sexual assault and help victims is to start by believing those victims, representatives of two organizations that assist victims said.

Susie Hanson, the victims services coordinator with the Stevens County Attorney's office and Rachel Peterson of Someplace Safe, a violence crisis response and support organization, are working with a local "Start By Believing" campaign.

Activities are planned for throughout the week of April 8-14 which coincides with National Crime Victim Rights Week to draw attention that even in 2018, victims of sexual assault may not be believed and can be bombarded with questions that make them feel guilty or irresponsible.

"If somebody tells you they were a victim of sexual assault, how will you respond?" Hanson said. "Your response can make a difference."

Peterson said asking for victims of sexual assault to be believed can be a culture shift for some. The recent news of women working in the TV and movie industry stating they were sexually assaulted and the expanding #metoo campaign in which victims of sexual assault are encouraged to report it and share their stories, has helped focus on the problem of disbelief of victims, Peterson said.

Still, there is a culture in which some people still think it's OK to touch a person's body parts or in ways that make someone else uncomfortable or that sexual assault is the fault of the victim, Peterson said.

"We want to make sure victims in Stevens County know that we will believe victims of sexual crimes and other crimes," Peterson said.

Belief can trigger a crime report to law enforcement which is followed by an investigation and possible charges, Peterson and Hanson said. Belief doesn't not guarantee a criminal case nor does it mean that some victims are not really victims, they said. Yet, county attorney Aaron Jordan wrote in a news release, statistics show that many victims who report the assault are telling the truth. And, it's important to start on the premise of belief, Jordan said.

Statistics and evidence show that not believing victims means sexual crimes are underreported and that victims may be isolated to deal with the residue of assault, the advocates said.

Peterson said in the fiscal year 2017, Someplace Safe worked with 34 victims of sexual assault. "We are at the halfway point of fiscal 2018 and we are up to 37 victims," Peterson said.

Those victims are of every age, sex, culture and background, Peterson said.

Some of the most underreported sexual crimes involve male victims, people who may be married or in an intimate relationships, members of the LGBTQ community, and members of native peoples communities, Peterson said.

"People think that sexual assault can't happen within a marriage or intimate partnership, that you can't be sexually assaulted by your intimate partner," Peterson said. A person's body is still their body and an intimate partner can assault another intimate partner, she said.

Hanson and Peterson already work with agencies that believe victims including law enforcement, Stevens Community Medical Center and the county attorney's office. They also work collaboratively to assist victims from the time the assault is reported through any subsequent court process. Although they cooperate, their roles are different.

Hanson serves as an advocate during the legal and court process while Peterson is involved earlier, sometimes from almost immediately after the assault is reported. Peterson can work confidentially with victims. Hanson must report information she receives from a victim to law enforcement and the county attorney but that's to help the victim navigate the process and to help with any investigation or prosecution of a suspect.

Local information including pledge cards on Start By Believing will be available Monday through Saturday, April 9-14, at the Morris Public Library and Regional Fitness Center and from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, April 9-13, at the University of Minnesota Morris Student Center.

Someplace Safe is sponsoring its 2nd Annual Run for Someplace Safe 5k on Saturday, April 14. Registration is at 8:30 a.m. and the race starts at 9 a.m. at the Regional Fitness Center. To register call 320-589-3208 or register online at www.someplacesafe.info/events/calendar/html.

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