Kavanaugh allegations put new focus on sex crimes

DOVER — Advocates and experts in the field of sexual assault say it’s no surprise the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault did not come forward earlier.

Furthermore, they fear the negative reaction the allegations have been met with from some could discourage others from sharing their stories.

Judge Kavanaugh, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has been embroiled in controversy since Christine Blasey Ford accused him of holding her down and groping her at a party when they were both high school students in 1982. Two other women have since come forward with allegations of sexual assault.

Judge Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the claims.

Divided public

The allegations have divided the public: An Ipsos poll released Sept. 21 said 31 percent of Americans support the nomination, while 40 percent oppose it, with stark differences based on political affiliation.

A majority of Democrats said they believe the claims against him, while just 10 percent of Republicans said they do.

“I think we as a society need to be really careful about what messages we’re sending when we talk about the allegations around Kavanaugh,” University of Delaware sociology professor Chrysanthi Leon said.

The skepticism Ms. Ford’s claim has been met with by many Republicans could cause others not to come forward for fear of being judged harshly, advocates said.

“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Valerie Marek, executive director of Survivors of Abuse in Recovery, said. “Sometimes you hear someone’s story and you go, ‘Oh my God, that happened to me,’ and you start remembering, but then if someone is maligned in the media that can discourage them.”

President Trump tweeted on Sept. 21 that Dr. Ford surely would have gone to law enforcement and charges would have been filed “if the attack on (her) was as bad as she says.” But that, according to people who study sex crimes and work with victims, is a faulty assumption. Ms. Marek said Survivors of Abuse in Recovery’s clients typically wait around 20 years to report their abuse.

Recounting stories of sexual assault is an extremely difficult experience for many people, according to advocates and experts, who note that victims may not be believed or may even be blamed. One school of thought, less common than in the past but still in existence, is that a woman who is drinking heavily and wearing revealing clothes is partially at fault if she is raped.

Even if authorities and those around the victim are sympathetic, sharing details can be embarrassing and traumatic and may not lead to a punishment for the accused. Widener University Delaware Law School professor Judith Ritter said prosecutors sometimes opt not to even bring a case to trial out of a belief there isn’t enough evidence to win.

In the past, some people would avoid going to police because they knew they could be subject to questioning about their sexual promiscuity, with authorities sometimes seeking to turn the blame back on the victims. Over the past four decades, states have adopted rape shield laws, which limit questioning regarding a victim’s sexual history, but biases and disregard for those who suffer sexual assault still exist, Ms. Ritter said.

Societal changes

Major societal changes in this arena are still needed, Dr. Leon said, citing expanded sex education and strong whistleblower protections as two such improvements.

“If we can’t even talk to our kids about sexuality then we can’t even teach them to respect others’ boundaries,” she said.

As Dr. Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, media outlets and members of Congress, including Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, reported a surge in people reaching out to share their stories of being sexually assaulted.

Whether it leads to lasting change cannot be known for some time.

“I think it depends on what people do with how they are stirred up with this current moment,” Dr. Leon said.

The Me Too movement sparked in fall 2017 has led many women and some men to come forward, but, according to Dr. Leon, it’s not the first time there has been an increase in reporting sexual assault.

“None of the previous surges have really shown us the kind of changes that we need,” she said.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, about 16 percent of American women and 3 percent of American men have been the victim of rape, although many sexual assaults go unreported.

Contrary to what some believe, most rapes are not perpetrated by a stranger in a dark alley. In truth, about 70 percent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, ranging from an acquaintance to a family member to a romantic partner.

RAINN says just 31 percent of rapes are reported to police, 5.7 percent lead to an arrest and 0.6 percent result in jail time for the attacker.

In Delaware, there is no longer a statute of limitations on prosecuting sexual offenses. The General Assembly altered the law in 2003, and the state Supreme Court upheld the change.

“We usually receive reports of sex crimes relatively soon after their occurrence, but there are times where a substantial amount of time has passed since the alleged incident occurred,” Dover Police spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a bill designed to crack down on work-related sexual harassment, which a 2016 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded occurs to between 25 and 85 percent of women in the workplace.

According to the Delaware Department of Labor, 28 sexual harassment complaints have been filed with the agency since January 2017. The department is responsible for claims involving both private entities and government bodies.

The department said employment attorneys report more complaints have been addressed without going to government authorities, indicating bosses “may be addressing these complaints more proactively than in the past.”

Cpl. Hoffman said there’s been no trend regarding the amount of reported sexual assaults from a year or longer ago.

A retired Capital School District teacher was indicted in August for 10 counts of first-degree unlawful sexual intercourse regarding an alleged series of incidents between July 1989 and May 1990.

Carl Fennell, 73, began mentoring a girl as a tennis instructor when she was 14, authorities said. Now 43, the woman contacted police on July 11 and provided a statement to detectives as an investigation began.

“It is unusual to see such a gap from the time of occurrence of a crime to the time it is reported to authorities,” Cpl. Hoffman said at the time the arrest was announced publicly.

A 22-year-old Georgetown man was recently indicted on a first-degree rape charge after Delaware State Police were contacted by a woman regarding an alleged occurrence at a residence on June 20. Since that time, five additional persons have come forward, resulting in police charging Clay D. Conway with six counts of second-degee rape.

Police said the investigation continues and anyone with information is asked to contact Troop 4 Detective D. Kristunas at 752-3856. Information may also be provided by calling Delaware Crime Stoppers at 1-800-TIP-3333 or visiting delaware.crimestoppersweb.com.

Delaware State Police spokeswoman Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe said anyone reporting a sexual assault to police should call 911 or their local police department.

“In DSP, the responding trooper will handle the initial complaint, and then most often the case gets turned over to a detective in our Major Crimes Unit for further investigation,” Cpl. Jaffe said.

Time lapse

Dover Police said any victim of a sex crime can call 911 or 736-7111 or go to a local hospital. Hospitals will report incidents to police, authorities said. While a longer time lapse between an alleged act and a report to authorities may factor into the probe, police said it should be shared nonetheless.

“A prolonged period of time between the incident and reporting of the incident can create some challenges for an investigation, but that should never discourage a victim from coming forward,” Cpl. Hoffman said. “While physical evidence, witnesses and even suspects may be more difficult to locate, we still have success in solving those crimes and obtaining evidence from other sources.”

Dover Police “takes sex crime allegations extremely seriously and officers are expected to treat victims with respect, dignity and compassion when investigating these crimes,” he said.

While a patrol officer or other officer may be the initial point of contact for a victim, detectives typically handle the investigations, with assistance from the department’s victim services coordinator, Dover Police said.

Anyone seeking help is urged to contact Survivors of Abuse in Recovery or another organization that aids survivors. SOAR can be reached by calling 655-3953 in New Castle County, 422-3811 in Kent County and 645-4903 in Sussex County.


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