Sexual assault cases are challenging in resort area

By on June 11, 2013

SANE nurses, Becca Eilert and Daphne Hauser (Teuta Towler photo)

SANE nurses Becca Eilert and Daphne Hauser. (Teuta Towler)

Rape and sexual assault cases are not easy to talk about. But local women’s advocates are speaking up and trying to raise prevention awareness. And when such incidents do happen, they help the survivors through each step of ensuing process.

During April, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Outer Banks Hotline in conjunction with the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault held two days of training called Sexual Violence Primary Prevention 101.

The training was intended for agencies at the beginning stages of implementing prevention programming or those that have some experience but needed more guidance.

Amy Parsons, a sexual assault program coordinator with Hotline, teaches workshops throughout Dare County schools — from elementary to high school. Hotline’s safe touch program, anti-bullying and sexual harassment awareness are part of the education and prevention programs.

She also responds to calls from law enforcement or the hospital whenever there is a report of a sexual assault.

Parsons has mostly seen younger women reporting crimes with the exception of her first case, when the victim was a male adult.

“Every case is different, and it has never been clear-cut,” Parsons said.

Whatever the case might be, she’s there to help victims feel safe and comfortable. If they do not feel safe in their own homes, Hotline offers shelter.

Even with all of the education and prevention programs, the numbers of sexual assault cases are increasing.

The Dare County Sheriff’s Office had 29 cases reported from Jan 1, 2012 to April 29, 2013: Eleven sexual battery, three sex offenses, six indecent liberties, two statutory rape and seven rape cases.

“Unfortunately, it seems to be progressing. Every season there are more and more. There’s no decline in it,” said Scott Rodriguez, an investigator with the Dare County Sheriff’s Office.

Rodriguez discussed the difficulties peculiar to Dare County. For example, during the summer months, if a child is sexually assaulted while on vacation, the incident is often not reported until six months to a year later. For obvious reasons, the crime scene — often a rental home — is completely compromised and of little value in helping put a case together.

“It’s nearly impossible to find anything. That’s why we rely so much on the child interview and also a good suspect interview,” Rodriguez said.

“That’s when their training comes in handy,” said Gail Hutchison, victim advocate with the Dare County Sheriff’s Office.

Rodriguez has attended special training provided by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, APSAC ,which teaches guidelines for interviewing children.

He talked about the structure of the child interviews. Dare County Sheriff’s Office investigator,Trey Piland, emphasized how scrutinized those interviews are and how they have to be done in a particular manner so the interviewer cannot be accused of asking leading questions but also get information that will lead to criminal charges against a perpetrator. All interviews are recorded, Piland said.

While the investigators are busy building a case or getting ready to make an arrest, Gail Hutchison prepares victims for court, helps them fill out Victim’s Compensation forms and also keeps the victims and their families informed about the progress of the case.

If victims are hurt and go to the hospital, sexual assault nurse examiners, SANE, Becca Eilert and Daphne Hauser will take care of them. Eilert and Hauser are SANE nurses who have been specially trained to examine rape or sexual assault victims.

“The biggest complaint we hear from patients is that they have to tell their stories too many times. Taking away the triage area and bringing in a medical provider is one less time they have to tell their story,” Eilert said.

They make sure the victims are treated and comfortable. If they want a rape kit collected, the SANE nurses will do that. They seal the box in front of the patient and release it to the law enforcement so they can send it to the state crime lab.

Patients are offered an emergency contraception (often called a “morning after pill”) to avoid pregnancy as a result of rape.

There is now a process in which victims can go to the hospital and make an anonymous (“blind”) report about a sexual assault. In this way, a sexual assault evidence collection kit can be done in the event the victim wishes to press charges at a later time. Law enforcement does not know the identity of the victim and does not begin an investigation. The kit is stored outside of Dare County at a site maintained by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Once a prosecutable case is sent to the DA’s office, the first contact for the victims is Andrea Chaney, victim/witness assistant and child abuse coordinator. She helps educate the victims about their rights and their responsibilities as well as provide victim compensation forms.

“It’s more than just hand holding and supporting them emotionally. I make sure all the meetings are set up with the prosecutors and I walk with them through the court process, give them a forecast of what’s coming,” Chaney said.

The DA’s office currently has 16 felony sexual assault cases pending. These are just cases that are ready for trial. The number of sexual assault cases under investigation by the various law enforcement agencies is not known.

“Two of those cases are sex offenders failing to register, so there’s no victim in those, but they are tagged as sexual assault. Two forcible rapes of adults and all of the rest involve children in some way,” said Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Karpowicz.

She said that prosecuting cases involving children are the hardest because they’re the most emotional.

The legal process, depending on the type of case and the charges, takes 18 months to three years. Typically, charges are brought by a warrant or indictment.

“If we’re talking about a felony case and they are charged under a warrant, then the first step is an appearance in the District Court. The first appearance and the probable cause hearing are the two main procedural points in District Court,” Karpowicz said.

“If the law enforcement does not charge under a warrant, then we will get a DA’s package, which includes law enforcement reports, notes, videos and all evidence that they have and then we type up the indictments. Then the case goes in front of the grand jury and they determine if there’s true bill or no true bill and then it goes to the Superior Court,” she said.

Charges under indictment seem to help the victims because there are fewer court appearances and they don’t have to re-live their story every time they go to court. However, the waiting period is longer and there is not the sense of satisfaction that sometimes accompanies the immediate arrest of a suspect.

There are times when the District Attorney’s Office is involved in the investigation. They help investigators with legal advice in to build a stronger case.

There are many more sexual assault cases occurring in Dare County than are reported to law enforcement. Victims may be scared, threatened, humiliated and sometimes are afraid that nobody will believe them.

Rape is not about sex; it’s about power and control and is never the victim’s fault.

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