Sexual Abuse of the Disabled: How to Recognize and Deal with Suspected Abuse

For 10 years Martin Pistorius was trapped in his own body, aware of what was going on, but unable to speak or move.  His family and health care workers believed he was in a vegetative coma and had zero intelligence.   While trapped in his body, he suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse while in nursing homes.   What makes Martin’s story unusual is not that he was sexually abused, but that he eventually regained his ability to communicate and could stop the abuse. 

Studies confirm that disabled people are sexually abused at a higher rate than the general population.   People with intellectual disabilities, such as Downs’s syndrome and communication disorders, such as autism, are far more likely to be victims of sexual abuse.  In nursing homes, sexual abuse is often perpetrated by either staff or other residents.    Abuse can take the form of sexual contact without consent or pressure to engage in sexual activity. 

When a disabled person is not able to communicate that they have been sexually abused, there are signs that may indicate that sexual abuse has recently occurred.  Some signs might include:

  • bruises in the genital area
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • signs of physical abuse
  • unexplained pregnancy
  • torn clothing

If you suspect that your loved one may have been sexually abused:

  • Take them to the emergency room as soon as possible after the assault.
  • If they are an incapacitated or dependent adult, contact the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
  • Do not touch or disturb the scene of the assault.
  • Do not leave them alone with the suspected abuser.

Sexual Assault on the School Bus – Five Ways Schools Can Keep Vulnerable Children Safe

By Anne Kysar

Sexual assault of special education students is all too common.  Students with physical and developmental disability face an increased risk of sexual abuse.  On October 24, 2014, the Seattle Times reported that a special education student at Juanita High School was sexually assaulted in the locker room by four other students.  Unfortunately, the sexual victimization of vulnerable students does not stop at the school doors.  The school bus is an unsafe place for many vulnerable kids. Under the law, children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education.  In many instances this also entitles students to appropriate, and safe transportation to and from school.  Children with significant physical and developmental problems are often transported alongside children with behavioral problems.  Lax supervision on the school bus can put vulnerable children at risk.  There are things that schools can and should do to keep vulnerable children safe.

  1. Use Aides, Monitors and Escorts.  If a child has a history of behavioral problems and requires a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) at school, the plan should also address the child’s behavior on the school bus.  The School District has a duty to consider the safety of the other children on the bus in determining if the student needs extra supervision.  If a child has a history of sexually assaulting classmates, they will likely require one-on-one supervision.  A bus driver cannot provide intensive supervision of behaviorally disturbed children while driving the bus.
  2. Driver and Staff Training.  School bus drivers and staff should be trained to identify harassment and sexual assaults of vulnerable children and they should be required to intervene.  Schools should provide bus drivers and staff with the information about students and their disabilities which will allow them to be alert to potential problems.
  3. Training for Vulnerable Students.  Unfortunately, special education students often have the least information about sexuality and sexual assault.  Schools should provide vulnerable students with tools to recognize and report sexual harassment and assault. This training should be appropriate for the child and his or her disability.
  4. Alert Parents of Any Reports or Suspicions.  Suspicions of sexual assault or harassment should be communicated to parents.  Parents can talk to their children about safety and watch for signs of problems such as anxiety, insomnia in their children.
  5. Turn on the Cameras.  Many School Districts, including the Seattle School District, have cameras on school buses.  However, the cameras are often turned off.  Schools should require that the cameras remain on.

Schools have an obligation to keep all children safe at school and on the bus.  They can, and should take steps to protect children.

Domestic Violence, the NFL, and What the Law Can Do For You

By Sandra Widlan

A lot has been said about the NFL’s response to Ray Rice’s knockout punch to his then fiancée in a casino elevator.  However, little has been said about the civil remedies available to women who have been physically abused or sexually assaulted by athletes. The criminal justice system sometimes fails abuse victims.  As Michael Powell reported in the New York Times article “What Were They Thinking?  Ugly Video, Blind Justice”:

In February, after Rice knocked Janay Palmer senseless in a casino elevator, Atlantic County prosecutors obtained two tapes. They watched as Rice delivered his knockout blow, and they watched as, with chilling nonchalance, he lugged his fiancée’s unconscious body five-sixths of the way out of the elevator. Then he picked up her shoes.

Not long after, a grand jury handed up a felony indictment.

Then the prosecutors did the legal equivalent of nothing. They allowed Rice to enroll in pretrial intervention, in which he agreed to counseling and admitted nothing. It was the puncher’s equivalent of a traffic ticket.

A civil lawsuit can be an alternative remedy to criminal prosecution.

In a civil lawsuit, the victim (called the “plaintiff”) seeks to recover monetary damages from the perpetrator as compensation for pain and suffering and emotional distress.  By contrast, a criminal prosecution seeks punishment of the perpetrator through confinement, community service, and/or fines.  In some ways, it is easier to win a civil lawsuit:  unlike a criminal prosecution which requires that the crime be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a civil lawsuit only requires that the plaintiff prove the offense occurred on a “more probable than not basis.”

Victims of abuse don’t have to rely only on the NFL or prosecutors to find justice.

Community Spotlight: Varsha Govindaraju, A UW Student Leader Working to Reduce Sexual Assaults on Campus

By Anne Kysar


Sexual assault and relationship violence is widespread at college campuses.  Unfortunately, the University of Washington (UW) is no exception.  Fourth year student, Varsha Govindaraju, is changing this through her work with SARVA (Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Advocates), and through her work with Third Wave Feminists.  Varsha spent the 2013-2014 school year as the assistant director for SARVA.  The group promotes a culture of consent, rather than one of violence.  Varsha, along with other SARVA volunteers, puts on a series of workshops available to all students.  Topics include relationship violence, the dynamics of sexual assault and positive sexuality. Varsha also helped form a student group called “Third Wave Feminists.”  It is a group that promotes gender equality through discussion and activism.  The group hosted an “Ask a Feminist Day.”  Students asked questions ranging from, “Why are you a feminist?” to “Why do you hate men?”  Varsha explains that she tries to meet students where they are and not be discouraged if they are hostile to the ideas of feminism.

Varsha explains the University could do more to create a safe and equal environment for students to engage in sexual behavior.   Three things Varsha would like the UW to do to help create this environment are:

  1. Provide Information about Alcohol, Dating and Sex:  Because alcohol is frequently used to facilitate sexual assaults, all students should be given information about alcohol and its effect on a person’s ability to consent.  The information should be specific so that each student will understand how each drink will likely affect them given their body weight and gender.  The administration should provide all students with information about healthy consensual sexual relationships.  "Unless both parties actively say yes, the answer is no."
  2. Hire a Sexual Assault Nurse.  Currently, students have to go to Harborview Medical Center in order to receive a medical examination after a sexual assault.  The visit includes emergency contraception, sexually transmitted disease prevention, treatment of wounds and a forensic examination to gather evidence.  The trip to the Harborview Emergency Room can be daunting to students who have suffered a sexual assault.  Having an on call nurse who can provide these services would make it more likely that students would report sexual assaults.
  3. Revise the Code of Conduct.  The Student Code of Conduct prohibits sexual assault on campus.  However, it is not well understood or well known.  The University of Washington should revise their policy on sexual assault to make it more specific.  The University could explain what consent means, and what a sexual assault is.  Additionally, the UW should also make sure each student understands the policy.

After graduation, Varsha plans to take a year off of school.  Then she plans on going to Law School and to continue her work for social justice.  We can look forward to seeing her many future accomplishments.

Consequences for College Rape

By Sandra Widlan

This past May, Washington State University (WSU), along with 55 colleges, faced a Title IX investigation over how WSU handles sexual assaults which occur on campus.  Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, states:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

 

This means that if a college engages in gender discrimination the government may withhold federal funding.  Title IX has been used successfully to require colleges to support women’s athletics.  Title IX is now being used to address sexual assault on college campus.

A study of college campuses found that one in five undergraduate women is a victim of sexual assault.  The trauma from sexual assault prevents victims from attending class, studying, and pursuing an education.  Going through a college’s sham investigation into the assault makes matters much worse and compounds the injury.  In recognition of this, the Department of Education has informed colleges that the failure to appropriately address sexual assault on campus violates Title IX and puts colleges at risk of losing federal funding.  WSU is one of those colleges.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has announced recommendations to promote fairness when responding to college sexual assault.  These include:

  • Using the preponderance-of-the-evidence (i.e., more likely than not) standard in any fact-finding hearings to determine whether sexual assault occurred, rather than requiring the student prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the assault occurred;
  • Making sure that the adjudicators in fact-finding hearings have received adequate training in how to handle sexual assault allegations;
  • Prohibiting questioning or evidence about the student’s prior sexual conduct with anyone other than the alleged perpetrator; and
  • Explaining the possible results of the adjudication process, including sanctions, remedies/accommodations for the victim, and additional remedies for the school community.

In May, Time Magazine published a cover story, “Rape:  The Crisis in Higher Education.”  In it, Time cited a University of Massachusetts study which found that a small number of young men commit most of the rapes.

A crucial finding: among the relatively small group of perpetrators, more than half were repeat offenders, averaging nearly six rapes each.  Other studies of young men have reached similar conclusions.  In short, most guys are good guys.  But the ones who are bad aren’t just straying over a line.  Instead, they show a pattern of violent behavior.

In that same article, Time reported on the efforts of the University of Montana in Missoula has made to combat college rape including training bystanders to help prevent sexual assault.

With grant money from the Department of Justice, Missoula launched a cutting-edge-bystander awareness program designed by experts at the University of New Hampshire.  It helps students come up with realistic strategies to intervene in sexual assaults before they happen – by trying to distract or stop a potential perpetrator or getting a potential victim (like an intoxicated girl) away from a risking situation.

However, there are limits to what students can do to protect each other and colleges, like WSU, need to have policies and procedures in place that protect victims of sexual assault.  As Vice President Joe Biden stated:

You don’t want to be a school that mishandles rape.  Guess what?  Step up.  It’s time.

 

Foster Care and the ACE Study: Preventing Trauma and Protecting Children

By Anne Kysar

Most children enter foster care already traumatized from abuse and neglect.  They have been separated from their biological families and placed in a new and unfamiliar environment.  One of the largest studies ever done, the (ACE) Adverse Childhood Experiences study, found that childhood trauma changes the brain and negatively impacts every aspect of an adult’s physical and mental health.  The ACE study involved over 17,000 participants and spanned more than a decade. It was undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente.  According to scientists, there is a physiological reason for these outcomes.  Childhood trauma disrupts neurodevelopment and leads to problems with emotional regulation, somatic signal processing (body sensations), substance abuse, sexuality, memory, arousal, and aggression. Sadly, children in foster care often experience additional trauma while in the system.  Foster children in Washington State experience high rates of sexual abuse, physical abuse and multiple placements.  The ACE study shows that there is a cumulative effect to these additional traumas.  Simply put, the more traumas a child endures, the worse health outcomes they will have.  For example, for each additional adverse childhood experience, there is a 4 to 12 fold increase in the risk of substance abuse, depression and suicide attempts for those respondents reporting four or more categories of adverse childhood experiences.  Preventing additional trauma to already vulnerable children should be a public health imperative.  The Department of Social and Health Services must be held accountable for protecting children from abuse while in foster care.

The State also has an obligation to provide children with protective factors that mitigate the damage from trauma.  The ACE study found protective factors include having stable family placements and caring adults outside the family who can serve as role models or mentors.  Fortunately, a model for providing this kind of foster care is already available.  The Mockingbird Family Model is an innovating model for foster care delivery services that improves outcomes such as stability, permanency, sibling connections and caregiver retention.   The Mockingbird Family model involves “six to ten families live in close proximity to a licensed foster care family – a Hub Home – that provides assistance in navigating bureaucracy, peer support, social activities and respite care.”  Expanding programs like the Mockingbird Family Model statewide and protecting foster kids from further abuse and neglect should be a public health imperative.  The cost of failing to act is too great.

Foster Care, Sexual Abuse and Siblings: The Sibling Relationship Used as a Weapon

By Anne Kysar

“If you tell, you will never see your brothers and sisters again. DSHS will take you away and put you in separate placements.” When alumni of the Casey Family Program were interviewed, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in foster care.  One of the reasons perpetrators get away with sexually abusing foster kids is the threat that if the child tells, they will be separated from their siblings.  For a child in foster care, this is a credible threat because so often siblings are separated from one another.

Experts agree that the sibling bond can be especially important for children removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect. Siblings may be the only source of enduring attachment. When children enter foster care, being with siblings can foster a sense of safety and well-being. Separation from siblings can make children more vulnerable and increase anxiety and stress. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services:

 Some studies find that children placed with their siblings also experience more stability and fewer disruptions in care than those who were separated. Conversely, some studies have found that separated siblings in foster care or adoption are at higher risk for negative adjustment outcomes, including running away and higher levels of behavior problems.

Both Washington State law and Federal law recognize the importance of sibling relationships. The law clearly states a preference for placing children with their siblings. Unfortunately, despite the preference, placement with siblings is the exception, not the norm. As the number of siblings grows, the chances of being placed with siblings diminishes.

According to The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), the percentage of children placed in foster care with all their siblings is as follows:

  • 2 children – 54%
  • 3 children – 38.7%
  • 4 children – 27.1%
  • 5 children – 17%
  • 6 + children – 11.2%

Various reasons are cited for this failure including the number of siblings, the age gap, the needs of the children and the placement resources. Both children and abusive foster parents know that placement with one’s siblings is not the norm. As a result, the abuser has the power to make this threat credible and silence children. The only way to take power away from the abuser's threat is to take the sibling placement preference seriously. Inconvenience and cost should not be used as an excuse for making a very vulnerable child even more powerless.

Sexual Assault in the Military

By Kathy Goater

Aren't they Ashamed?  One of the most high-profile sexual misconduct cases in years ended when a military judge at Fort Bragg gave Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair a formal reprimand and ordered him to forfeit $5,000 a month in pay for four months.  Sinclair was allowed to remain in the military, keep his pension and avoid jail time under a plea deal which dropped the most serious charges of sexual assault, “open and notorious” sex, and threatening to kill the accuser and her family.  

Seriously - a plea bargain followed by a reprimand and fine is all that happens to a high ranking member of the armed forces who admits to engaging in inappropriate relationships with three female subordinates?  In the real world that’s called sexual harassment for which the perp would be liable to the victim and required to pay compensation for the emotional/psychological injuries he caused.  Should anyone be surprised General Sinclair smiled and hugged his attorneys after that sentencing hearing?

The military’s answer to victims of sexual assault and harassment doesn’t even amount to a slap on his proverbial wrist.  Do you think your women friends in the armed services are more secure knowing this is how the military is going to deal with sex offenders and men in power who sexually harass subordinates?

The military does not have a good record for responding to or curbing sexual assault and harassment.  A Pentagon study estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012 up from 19,000 from the previous study.  The pentagon also reported 5,000 reports of sexual assaults in the military for fiscal year 2013, which was a 50% increase from the preceding fiscal year.  

President Obama signed reforms in December 2013 that established minimum sentencing guidelines for military personnel found guilty of sex crimes, stripped commanders of power to overturn sentences that result from court-martials, and eliminated a 5 year statute of limitation on reporting sexual assault. 

These reforms are not enough.

Last month, the top army prosecutor of sex crimes,  Lt. Col. Joseph “Jay” Morse,  was suspended after a lawyer who worked for him recently reported he’d groped her and tried to kiss her at a sexual-assault legal conference more than two years ago.  The president of Protect Our Defenders, Nancy Parrish observed,

             "If true, this case is yet another disheartening example of the hollow pledges of ‘zero tolerance’ we have heard for more than 20 years.”  

            “When the military has those at top of the chain who are in charge of fighting sexual assault accused of sexual misconduct at a conference on sexual assault it should be clear to every level headed human being [that] the status quo must be changed." 

Why can’t we have accountability?

Unfortunately, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (NY) attempt to pass legislation that would strip the chain of command’s authority over sexual assault cases was not successful.  Her legislation lacked sufficient votes to overcome a filibuster – a filibuster designed to preserve the status quo of letting the chain of command control sex assault prosecutions.   The stats released by the Pentagon demonstrate the status quo isn’t working.  Out of 26,000 estimated military sexual assaults in 2012, only 3,374 were reported, and only 302 were prosecuted, according to the Department of Defense. 

What about a civil lawsuit?

The United State Supreme Court in its ruling in Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950), determined that federal law governs claims by members of the military while on duty for injuries caused by the negligence of the government.  The law of this case is known as the Feres Doctrine.  The basic premise is that a person in the military can’t sue the government for its negligence in causing injury.  There is a substantial body of case law interpreting the Feres decision, but none of it permits a member of the service, who is a victim of sexual assault, to sue the US government regardless of how careless the military has been in terms of stopping sexual assault or protecting them from such assaults. 

There have been many creative attempts to work around the holding of Feres, for the most part without success.  Whether the Feres Doctrine precludes lawsuits against the perp, is a different question, but suing an individual generally requires a belief that the perp has sufficient assets to make the journey worthwhile.

What do I do if I'm Raped?

By Kathy Goater

Call the Police – Tell Someone.  It’s understandable if you've been attacked that your instinct might be to try to disappear and pretend like it never happened.  Sorry folks – it doesn't work.  Eventually that personal assault to the core of your being will fester and break out.  Why not avoid all the self-imposed feelings of guilt, loss of self-worth, and loss of confidence and get on the front end of the issue.  Rape is a crime - it’s not the fault of the victim.  The perpetrator is the person to be distained.

I was a prosecutor for 20 years so I am biased, but I am a proponent of reporting assaults to the police.  Sometimes the police have their own bias, other times their ability to take action can be hampered by the absence of evidence.  But if you are vocal and report as soon as possible, they have a better chance of being able to do an effective investigation so that the perp can be held accountable.  At the end of the day – it’s the outcome everyone wants.  You as the victim and we as a community.

What Should I Expect if I call the Police? 

A uniformed officer likely will respond and take a short statement from you and make sure you are safe.  Hopefully the initial report to the police will be referred to a detective who specializes in the investigation of sexual assaults.  The detective will interview you to obtain a detailed statement of what happened.  If you’ve been recently assaulted, or if the victim is a child, you will be referred to a medical facility for care and for collection of evidence.

You may hear the term “rape kit” - this is the process whereby a medical provider examines a rape victim and collects potential evidence such as semen, saliva, and DNA by swabbing those areas where such excretions might be present.  When a rape is committed by an unidentified person, the police will also want to collect hair samples – head and pubic - so that stray hairs at the crime scene or on the victims clothing can be eliminated as coming from the victim and the donor identified.  A rape exam can be unnerving.  Understanding the reason for it may help.

The case detective will do an investigation that should include interviewing witnesses and searching the crime scene for potential evidence.  Search warrants (an application by the detective to a judge for permission to search private areas for potential evidence) may be obtained in this process.  Phone, texting, and computer records might be among those items the police want to seize.  Eventually the detective will make a decision whether prosecution of the case is feasible.  If it is, the case will be sent to the prosecutor’s office for the filing of charges.  In cases involving children the police are required to submit the investigation to the prosecutor’s office for their decision on going forward with charges. If the victim is an adult, the police have more discretion whether to submit the case to the prosecutor for review.  If the victim is notified that no charges are to be filed, the option of suing the perpetrator in a civil case may still be viable.

What are My Alternatives to Criminal Prosecution?

A victim of sexual abuse may have a viable civil lawsuit, if someone could have stopped the crime from happening in the first place -- for example, a nursing home, church, school, hospital, or government agency.  Even if the perpetrator was never charged, or many years have passed since the abuse stopped, it may not be too late to seek relief in the courts.  While money can't erase what happened, compensation helps people get their lives back on track, receive long-term counseling, recover lost wages, and often, achieve a sense of closure.

 

New Legislation Helps Children Who Are Victims of Sex Trafficking

By Sandra Widlan

The terms “sex trafficking” and “human trafficking” and “the commercial sex trade” are often used interchangeably to describe situations in which women and girls are coerced into prostitution.  During the first six months of 2013, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 312 phone calls reporting human trafficking in Washington.  Three-quarters of those callers reported sex trafficking.  One-third of the reports involved children and teenagers.  According to a Seattle Times Editorial published last month:

The average age of those who enter this form of modern-day slavery is about 13 years old.

Hundreds of children throughout King County are experiencing the same kind of exploitation.

One of the many problems survivors of sexual exploitation face is that by the time they are able to extricate themselves from these bonds, they frequently have convictions on their record making it difficult for them to get a fresh start.

Fortunately, new legislation reached Governor Inslee’s desk this week that would allow victims of sex trafficking to have prostitution convictions cleared from their records.  Governor Inslee is expected to sign this measure into law.

Prostitution convictions frequently punish the victim.  As State Representative Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who championed the legislation, emphasized:

We’re really talking about people who’ve survived years of trauma and need help finding a normal, stable life again.

Many victims of sex trafficking suffered childhood abuse and neglect long before prostitution, which made them easily exploitable by pimps who promised them a better life.  The Seattle Police Department supported the legislation for this reason.

If you are a victim of sex-trafficking or know someone who is, you can get help by calling 1-888-373-7888 or by texting BeFree (233733).  You can also get help from YouthCare, a non-profit organization that helps homeless youth.

Protecting Foster Children from Sexual Exploitation

By Anne Kysar

Congressman Dave Reichert, in a recent op-ed The News Tribune, identified a very serious problem, the sexual exploitation of children in foster care,  and then offered a very inadequate solution.  According to Congressman Reichert, “Tragically, many sex trafficking victims are children in the foster care system. Of children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who were also likely sex trafficking victims, 60 percent were in foster care or group homes when they ran away.” Unfortunately, his solution is woefully inadequate -- the equivalent of "let them eat cake."  He suggests that we allow foster kids to sign up for basketball, travel and go on sleepovers without too much red tape.  While that may be a nice idea, it does little to solve the problem of the sexual exploitation of children in foster care.

Children who were sexually abused in foster care are especially vulnerable to adults who lure them into prostitution in adolescence.  According to University of Washington researchers, “Our results indicate, large, significant associations between histories of both sexual molestation and rape and subsequently reporting having transactional sex among a group of youth emancipating from the foster care system.”

If Congressmen Reichert and others are serious about protecting children,  the Department of Social and Health Services must be held accountable for the duties that the legislature has entrusted to them including:

  • Respond to and follow up on reports of abuse
  • Properly investigate foster parent or group homes prior to placement
  • Provide regular private face to face visits with children
  • Run the criminal history of prospective foster parents or others in the home
  • Provide quality mental health care for children who have been abused

Most Children do not run away because their foster parents have to fill out too many forms for them to play basketball but because the State has failed to protect them when they are most vulnerable.

 

Taking a Stand

By Kathy Goater

If you haven’t read Dylan Farrow’s letter about what she has endured from both being sexually assaulted by her famous father, Woody Allen, and those who claimed she lied -  you need to do it right now. Ms. Farrow took a very courageous step by baring her soul and disclosing her  pain to the world.  Her telling could not be more poignant.

Her letter resonated with me because of the countless children and adults I’ve encountered in my professional life who have very similar stories.   No, they aren’tthe children of famous  actors, but their pain is no less.  Ms. Farrow’s experiencesecho those of countless children who suffer in silence, and those who are met by disbelief when they do speak out.  Her story unfortunately is not unique.

This month King County Sexual Assault Resource Center will be hosting a breakfast to raise funds to help each and every child in King County whose innocence is stolen and life altered by sexual abuse.  Their breakfast is aptly named “Be Loud”  in recognition of those who cry out against abuse, those who shout out to be heard, and those just like Ms. Farrow who shared her grief so that others will stand tall in stopping sexual assault.  Make some noise and join them.

Sexual Assault on College Campuses:

By Kathy Goater

Students Join Forces against Universities that Inadequately Respond to Sexual Violence.

Something new and exciting is occurring on our nation’s college campuses – victims of sexual assault are joining forces and filing collective complaints with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.  These multi-victim actions are aimed at making universities accountable for deterring sexual violence.  The complaints are designed to prompt investigations into the schools’ practices thereby precipitating change in how the schools respond, or alternatively will lead to lawsuits by the respective students.  For your information

Sexual violence on campuses isn’t new, nor is the failure of administrators to adequately respond to rape.  A campus where sexual violence is tolerated or permitted because of inadequate responses to complaints, effectively denies victims access to a full educational experience.

When a student is sexually assaulted and the university fails to properly respond to such complaints, the school can be liable to the victim under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal funding.  Basically, when schools act with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment in its programs or activities,  and victims thereby miss out on parts of their educational experience, the victims are being subjected to discrimination and the school can be held accountable.

In the past, students on an individual basis bravely took on universities on Title IX complaints.  Being the sole plaintiff suing a university can be an intimidating and difficult process.  In one case handled by my law firm, our client S.S. sued the University of Washington after she was raped by a member of the football team.  Her report to school authorities led her to a closed hearing where she was supposed to sit opposite the man who raped her and reach an accommodation with him.   The school took no meaningful action against the perp.  On hearing the case, the Washington Court of Appeals agreed that an inadequate response to rape by the University of Washington, has the potential to limit a victims access to education for which the school can be liable.  S.S. v Alexander, 177 P.3d 724 (2008).

Switching from a solo voice to that of a choir is the new tactic being used by victims of sexual violence at Occidental, Swarthmore and other universities.  Technology along with some creative thinking and verve led students collectively to complain and proceed against their schools.

Filing a Title IX group complaint, like the ones being filed at Swarthmore and Occidental, is a shift in the paradigm of how victims are using the avenues available to them to seek protection and redress.   It's brilliant – it's loud and clear – and it's causing quite a stir.  You have a group of over 30 victims of sexual assault, all complaining the same school is ignoring what’s happening or treating the offenders with a mere slap on the hand.  It puts the problem of sexual violence on campus front and center.

Hopefully these cases will be successful and those institutions that push victims to meet behind closed doors to work things out with the person who raped them, and fail to take any significant action against the perp will be forced to change.  Clear policies and procedures to deal harshly with sexual violence in universities is necessary so that campuses are safe.  Kudus to those victims who are participating in these cases and are willing to take a stand for the rights of current and future students.

 

Sexual Abuse when I was a Child: Is it Too Late to Act?

By Kathy Goater

"I've just become strong enough to confront my abuser - can you help?"  This is a conversation I have with prospective clients several times a month. Child sexual abuse is perpetrated by persons with leverage over the child - be it age, position of trust, authority, or the ability to instill fear.  It may take years before the victim of the abuse is able to confront what happened and come to grips with the impact of the sexual assault on their psyche and emotional well-being.  We repeatedly see this dynamic in media reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests, television personalities, and sports figures.  Make no mistake, this same pattern of delay in reporting sexual assaults and the concomitant occurrence of long term harm, happens with victims of sexual assault in all walks of life.

What about the delay in taking action?

Washington law recognizes the dynamics of child sexual abuse and permits the filing of lawsuits when a victim realizes the impact of abuse years after the abuse occurs.  RCW 4.16.340  Even when the criminal justice system can't or won't act, victims still have an avenue to hold accountable those who perpetrated the abuse or were responsible for creating an environment where abuse was able to occur.

What are your options?

  • Contact the authorities:  If your primary goal is to stop the offender from hurting another person, report what happened to those who have a legal obligation to protect children.  Call the policeorchild protective services.
  • File a civil law suit:  Your attorney can send a letter to the perp as notice of thelawsuit you are about to file and to request their attorney contact your attorney by a date certain if (a.) they wish toresolve the matter before your lawsuit is filed, (attaching a copy of the lawsuit is advisable),  or (b.) to advise if their attorney will accept service of the lawsuit.
  • Determine if other persons or groups had a legal duty to have acted to prevent the abuse.  If so, proceed with a lawsuit against those whose actions were deficient and resulted in creating a situation where the abuse occurred.

The dynamics of child sexual abuse results in delayed reporting of the abuse - this is the norm.  Even when the abuse occurred years ago, one may still be able to bring a civil lawsuit against those who should be held accountable.  Civil lawsuits can effect change, assist in one's healing process, give the victim the opportunity to be heard, and provide compensation for the harm that has been caused.