LOCKPORT – For victims of sexual assault, the trauma can be both scary and embarrassing, but they don’t have to endure alone.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and also Child Abuse Prevention Month. Sadly, the numbers of abused adults and children both nationwide and in Niagara County are troubling.
About 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, a national statistic that holds true for Niagara County, as well, according to Laura J. Kelemen, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara.
“It holds true for both boys and girls,” Kelemen said. “Rich, poor, rural, urban, it doesn’t matter.”
According to the statistics, 1 in 4 females will be sexually assaulted by age 18, and 1 in 6 males.
“From our perspective, one is too many,” said Mary Brennan-Taylor, vice president of programming for the YWCA of Niagara.
“Oftentimes they don’t want to come here because of the cost for a trip to the emergency room, but the cost is free. The Violence Against Women Act covers all the exams and all the lab work we do,” said Maureen B. “Molly” Maigret, a registered nurse and coordinator of the Sexual Assault Awareness Nurse Examiner, or SANE, program at Eastern Niagara Hospital in Lockport.
A specially trained team of nurses, social workers and members of law enforcement make up the Sexual Assault Response Team for adults at the hospital, as well at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and DeGraff Memorial in North Tonawanda.
Child Advocacy Centers designed to respond to the different needs of children are available at the sites in Niagara Falls and Lockport.
“No matter what hospital someone goes to, as an adult, they should expect to receive a SANE program nurse,” Brennan-Taylor said.
Those who come to the hospital are courageous to make that important first step, Maigret said, but they are often afraid of the exposure in the emergency room. They may think everyone will see them and know why they are there.
But at Niagara hospitals, private unmarked examining rooms have been designated specifically for adults who have been sexually assaulted.
“Everything is kept very confidential bringing them out of the ER,” Maigret said.
Niagara County Sheriff’s Capt. Kristen M. Neubauer, chief of detectives, said that there are various reasons people don’t report sexual assaults.
“Victims face social pressures and demands within their lives,” Neubauer said. “The suspect could be a family member or the breadwinner of the household. The victim may feel responsible, and they are not.
“So you have a lot of psychological reasons. There’s a lot going on.”
Kelemen added: “You will have young women who – maybe they were out at a bar and were drinking – then blame themselves and feel somewhat responsible – which they are not.”
According to Maigret, the threshold for reporting a sexual assault is “anytime they feel violated.” She emphasized that although the national protocol for reporting is 96 hours, there is no deadline.
“If they’ve showered, they can still come in, and we can collect their clothing, and there would still be evidence,” Maigret said. “After that window, we still want them to seek care.”
Brennan-Taylor added that even those who are not seeking legal action need to come in for their own physical safety and health.
“ ‘The sooner, the better,’ we tell everyone, just to avail themselves of medications for pregnancy prevention, for HIV and STDs,” Brennan-Taylor said.
Adolescents are often afraid to tell a parent, Maigret said, so exams can be performed without parental notification.
“We encourage parent involvement because they so need that support system,” Maigret said, “but if they are not going to come because a parent would find out, that would be atrocious.”
Kelemen said, “If you choose to do nothing else, at least get yourself linked with an advocate who then can help to follow up to provide whatever healing sources you need.”
For children who are considered “nonconsenting under 17 years of age,” she said, the laws for sexual assault are expanded to also include: exposing yourself in front of a child, viewing pornography with a child, talking about sex in an inappropriate way and making sexual jokes with a child.
The Child Advocacy Center’s satellite office is provided in the YWCA of Niagara in Lockport, Kelemen said, because of the difficulty for some people in eastern Niagara County to get to Niagara Falls.
“We’ve used this model for children’s sex crime in Niagara County for 25 years and have seen nothing but great results,” Neubauer said. “So to naturally develop something for adult sex crimes using a similar model flowed so easily because it was already in place.”
Brennan-Taylor said, “The victims don’t have to go through this alone. It would be terrifying to go through this alone. Every single person has the victim’s healing at the core of their jobs.”
She said the center’s mantra for adult victims is: “Get to one of the hospitals in Niagara County. Get medically treated. An advocate will be called.”
Victims who do want to come in, she said, can call the Rape Crisis Hotline at 433-6716.
For children, it is often the case that a trusted adult or even a family member has sexually abused them, Kelemen said. Abusers, she said, are manipulative, making the children feel as if it is their fault. As a result, she said, children often are afraid to report it.
“I tell them, ‘Tell a parent. If they don’t believe you, tell another parent. Tell a teacher.’ If you are an adult and a child tells you, the single most important thing you can say is ‘I believe you, and we will get you some help,’ ” Kelemen said. “Children tell someone because they just want it to stop.”
Neubauer said, “The impetus of this process is for the well-being of the victim and the non-offending family, but we should not forget that, from a law enforcement standpoint, when you take care of the victim to the best of your ability, you actually strengthen a case to hold those accountable that need to be held accountable.
“The end point is a more prosecutable case, a stronger case, and a family and a victim who are more onboard. It’s not what we look at first, but it helps us do our job better.”