Sexual assault remains a woefully common and underreported crime inVirginia, and the state must place a greater emphasis on the needs ofvictims, a new state commission on sexual violence was told Thursday.
While lawmakers have made great progress in the management ofsexually violent predators, the Gov.'s Commission on Sexual Violencehopes to direct a similar amount of attention toward the treatment ofvictims and the prevention of future assaults, said the commissionco-chair, Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall.
The commission's members, appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine,include sexual assault survivors, law enforcement officials,legislators, advocates and clergy. They will present Kaine with theirrecommendations next year.
A 2003 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth Universityfound that one in four women and one in eight men in Virginia have beenvictims of sexual assault â€” statistics that are consistent withnational figures, said Rebecca Odor, director of sexual and domesticviolence prevention for the Virginia Department of Health.
The study, which surveyed 1,769 women and 705 men ages 18 andolder, also found that just 12 percent of female victims and 7 percentof male victims reported their assaults to police.
Sexual assault cases are difficult for victims, but alsopresent unique challenges to prosecutors, said Hampton Commonwealth'sAttorney Linda Curtis. Sexual assault victims have special emotionalneeds and require extra attention, and children are often unwilling totestify, she said.
Several speakers at the commission's inaugural meeting Thursdayspoke of the need for hospitals to have access to forensic nurseexaminers, who specialize in dealing with victims of sexual assault.Such nurses provide comfort to patients and can help prosecutors bynoting otherwise easy-to-miss injuries indicative of a sexual assault.
There are just 37 sexual assault crisis centers in Virginia,and staff is stretched thin, said Ruth Micklem, co-director of theVirginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. And while thestate receives about $1 million in federal funding for preventionservices, there is no state funding for such programs, she said.
The commission will address those and other issues in thecoming months, after dividing into three subcommittees, each focusingon a different topic: prevention, treatment and intervention, and thecriminal justice process and legislation.
The full commission will reconvene in June to discuss thesubcommittees' recommendations. Its final recommendations will then bepresented to Kaine and made available to the General Assembly forconsideration.
Rev. Katherine Gray, chaplain of Riverside Hospice in NewportNews, shared with the commission her own haunting story of abuse,illustrating the lasting effects of sexual violence.
When Gray was 10, she said she was molested by a man while at aneighbor's house. Traumatized, she eventually confided in a relative.But instead of helping her, she said, the relative instead beganabusing her, too.
In the years that followed, she spent her nights hiding in hercloset, unable to sleep and suffering from persistent migraines. Inhigh school, a teacher befriended her. But their relationship soonturned sexual, Gray said.
The abuse left Gray with clinical depression and sexualconfusion. She endured a painful marriage to an alcoholic and stillworries people won't believe her.
"I was sure that my life didn't really count for much," saidGray, who asked that her name be used. "I became a person who didn'ttrust nice people. My major job was to carry secrets."
Gray said she hopes her story demonstrates the importance of addressing the needs of victims.
"All of our efforts to empower children to recognize danger ... come to nothing, if there's no one to listen," she said.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine: http://www.governor.virginia.gov/