Sexual assault in Columbia: A helping hand at your fingertips

With reports of sexual assault on the rise, knowing resources can help in a time of need
Friday, December 7, 2007 | 2:29 p.m. CST; updated 7:50 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

As Columbia’s population has grown, so has its violent crime, including sexual assaults. The number of rapes reported to police have increased in Columbia since 2004 — in contrast to a national decline — according to the U.S. Department of Justice. From 2004 to 2006, the number of forcible rape offenses in Columbia rose from 17 to 23.

Although reports of rape have increased, University Hospital nurse Brenda Jensen says rape is still underreported.

University Hospital treated over 60 rape victims in the last year, said Jensen, head of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program and associate director of patient-care services. In October, Gov. Matt Blunt announced at University Hospital his plan to recommend an allocation of $4 million to cover the costs of rape exams at all Missouri hospitals.

In 2006, the Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault cared for 134 sexual assault victims. Sexual assault refers to a spectrum of sexual offenses, ranging from molestation to rape. The majority, or about 80 percent of the victims, claimed they were raped, said Leigh Volltmer, executive director of the Shelter. Most were referred to the Shelter by University Hospital and Boone Hospital, she said.

Of the 134 victims, only three were assaulted by a stranger, said Kelley Lucero, the sexual assault program coordinator at the Shelter.

“Ninety to 95 percent of the time it’s someone you know, although you may not know them well,” Lucero said.

Rapes are generally underreported to the police for various reasons, such as shame or because the victim knows the attacker, said Jensen. But despite the reasons why rape goes unreported, survivors of rape should know where they can get care and assistance to deal with the aftermath of the attack.

“Like with any assault or any trauma, the more information you have, the better able you are to start the healing process,” Volltmer said. “We often don’t seek out that information and that help because we are embarrassed or ashamed by the stigma of rape but that doesn’t serve us well.”

Hospital Help

Q. Where can I get medical care after a sexual assault?

A. You can go to University Hospital and tell a nurse in triage that you have been sexually assaulted. You will be guided to a private waiting area, away from the busy emergency waiting room. Waiting in a separate space away from the noise and crowd is meant to make you feel more at ease.

Within 30 minutes of your arrival, a SANE nurse will escort you to a safe room, a small private room where sexual assault victims receive treatment. Boone and Columbia Regional also have SANE nurses that use the safe room at University Hospital to afford victims complete privacy and safety.

Q. Will the SANE nurse or advocate call the police?

A. Any care you receive at the hospital is voluntary and confidential. Unless you want the police to be called, they won’t be.

Q. What is a rape exam? Will I have to get a rape exam? How much does it cost?

A. A rape exam is a forensic exam for crime evidence collection that lasts a few minutes. You will only have a rape exam if you want. The rape exam, morning-after pill and antibiotics are free.

Q. Will the nurse collect any other evidence? What happens to it?

A. The nurse will collect your clothes as evidence and replace them with new sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

If you called the police, or asked that they be called, the police will collect the evidence. Otherwise, University hospital will store the evidence until you decide to go to the police. The hospital usually does not keep evidence more than a few months.

Counseling and Care

Q. What is an advocate?

A. An advocate provides support and/or counseling to sexual assault victims after an assault, whether the attack happened yesterday or five years ago. The support may be financial, legal, emotional, or psychological, depending on your needs and the services provided by the advocate’s organization.

Q. How do I get in touch with an advocate?

A. An advocate, either from Rainbow House or the Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, will meet you at the hospital and explain what an advocate does and ask if you want their assistance.

You can call the Shelter’s hot line anytime at 875-1369 or 800-548-2480.

Q. What services can I get at the Shelter?

A. The Shelter provides free counseling, and if you want, the Shelter also offers psycho-educational sessions and crisis intervention sessions with your family to help them understand the impact of sexual assault. Your medical and psychological information will remain private, though. “We talk about sexual assault in a general way, not in a way that speaks directly to or breaches the individual’s confidentiality,” Volltmer said.

Q. Does the Shelter provide shelter?

A. Only women and their children (up to 19 years old in some cases) can stay at the Shelter. If you are a man seeking counseling and assistance after a sexual assault, the advocates will not meet with you at the Shelter, but will still provide care and advice at a non-resident service office. If necessary, the Shelter will pay for your temporary stay at a motel.

Q. What services can I get from Rainbow House?

A. Rainbow House provides counseling and support groups, such as Over the Rainbow, a group for female sexual abuse survivors aged 11 to 16. Rainbow House also does forensic interviews, which are recorded and a video given to police. Forensic interviews allow children to explain their experience. As part of the investigation into sexual abuse, forensic interviews are performed in a room with only the child and interviewer. “Interviewing techniques may vary a bit depending on the interviewer but the child is allowed to tell his or her own story in free narrative form,” Kristi Turner, clinical coordinator for the child advocacy center of Rainbow House wrote in an e-mail. “If appropriate, anatomical drawings are used during the interview to help the child identify different body parts and name the parts by the words he or she calls them.”

Q. How does Rainbow House counsel children?

A. After a child is accepted for counseling at Rainbow House, a therapist will complete a biopsychosocial assessment of the child, which outlines the need for therapy, any medical and psychological histories, personal interests and hobbies, and family relationships. The biopsychosocial assessment is just the start of therapy. The counselor and child then set treatment goals that must address not only the abuse or assault, but also any other issues discovered during the assessment, like substance abuse or extreme anger. The goals, a part of the healing process, include those that insist that the child not blame himself or herself for the crime.

Follow-up therapy — whether play therapy, individual, group or family counseling — continue until the child has reached their goals. “Therapy is more of a partnership rather than just me being in charge because I don’t have all the answers,” said Turner. “Healing from sexual abuse or any kind of trauma is definitely a process.”

Police Procedure

Q. How long should I wait to contact the police?

A. You should call the police immediately after a sexual assault, but it is your decision to call or not.

Q. When do I have to talk to the police about the crime? Will I have to talk with the officer alone?

A. After the rape exam and consultation with the nurse, the officer, in the presence of an advocate (the representative from an organization that counsels victims), will begin an investigation by asking you questions about the attack.

Q. What if I do not want to press charges?

A. The police will pursue an investigation even if you ask them not to. When the police hear from you that you have been attacked, they are obligated to file a police report. The prosecuting attorney will then decide whether there is enough evidence to try the case in court.

Tips to Reduce Risk

Kelley Lucero of the Shelter has these tips for women, but she insists that these tips do not guarantee you will avoid a sexual attack.

“You can do everything I say and it can still happen,” she said. “If it does, it wasn’t your fault.”

&bull: Be alert in parking garages, and if you’re a student, lock your dorm doors.

&bull: If you go to a party, go with other people and do not leave your friends behind.

&bull: Abstain from alcohol. If you are drunk, you are more vulnerable to sexual assault. If you do drink, never leave your drink unattended. It is rape if you are too intoxicated to give consent.

Designated drivers should make sure their friends are safely inside their homes, with the doors locked, before they drive off.

&bull: If someone tries to sexually assault you, refuse loudly and clearly. If that does not work, use mace or pepper spray. When you use the spray, close your eyes and turn your head because the spray can back splash.

&bull: Don’t put too much information on networking Web sites. Potential rapists can use that information to locate you.

&bull: The MU Police Department sponsors a Rape Aggression Defense program that is free to students. Female students can attend a series of free classes, including courses on basic self-defense and how to properly use mace for protection.

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