ELIZABETHTOWN — “Every 107 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.”
That figure is according to data compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network based on data form the U.S. Department of Justice. Locally, in Bladen County, Families First served 86 sexual assault victims in 2014, said Lucy Byrd, sexual assault advocate for Families First.
“My role as the Bladen County sexual assault advocate is to assure victims of sexual assault receive appropriate and responsive care from agencies within our community,” said Byrd.
She said victims are faced with tough decisions after a sexual assault has occurred and that it is often comforting to have an agency such as Families First to serve as a “neutral home base.”
“It is not our role to investigate and having us as an ally is extremely important as victims navigate the complexities of the medical and judicial system,” said Byrd. “We inform individuals of their rights, serve as a liaison between agencies, offer companionship and comfort during forensic exams, offer crisis intervention, conduct safety planning, and provide trusting relationships that is often difficult with so many people involved.”
Byrd said sexual assault impacts every aspect of a victim’s life, including safety, health, work and finances. She said sexual assault can also lead to a lengthy odyssey through the legal system and dealing with governmental and community agencies.
Byrd said the Bladen County Sexual Assault Response Team was created to discuss and analyze the process and look for workable solutions to problem areas.
“The Bladen County SART is a team of Families First, the individual town police departments and the sheriff’s department, the Department of Social Services, the District Attorney’s Office, Bladen County Hospital, and Bladen County Emergency Management Services. Our team collaborates on the best way to assist all victims of sexual assault. We meet quarterly to discuss, analyze, and process solutions for problem areas,” said Byrd.
Child Protective Services Supervisor Jill Sampson with the Bladen County Department of Social Services said Bladen County SART helps to improve on the type and quality of services offered to sexual assault victims.
“SART is a fabulous opportunity to collaborate with other agencies and discuss how to better our services to the community and those in need,” said Sampson.
Vickie Smith, director of Bladen County Department of Social Services, said the team is a good way to help victims who are overwhelmed by the process.
“Bladen County SART Team provides a network to assure that families and individuals that are in sexual assault situations receive “wrap around” services to assure their situation has positive outcomes. Bladen County is fortunate to have such a group to provide input for victims,” said Smith.
Byrd said, “The benefit of SART is to ease the strain on a sexual assault victim trying to reach out to all these agencies and is a benefit to the service agencies as they get to share resources, information, and clients. The end goal is to be able to provide law enforcement and the court system with more evidence to prosecute perpetrators of sexual assault. Nationally nearly 97 percent of sexual assault perpetrators do not spend a day in jail.”
“As an investigator with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, our goal is to always try and keep our case load down. Having SART in this county helps get the word out to those who have not reported. We may start to see higher numbers of sexual assault. Higher numbers in this category is a sad situation, but it should be interpreted as a positive sign that women are stepping up and saying ‘I am somebody and I won’t be victimized any longer,’” said Det. Sue Lutz.
District Attorney Jon David said teamwork by everyone involved in a sexual assault case is very important.
“The effective prosecution of sexual assault cases depends on strong team work at early stage and the commitment to see the case through to a successful conclusion. I cannot say enough about how SART helps my office achieve justice for victims in these important cases,” said David.
Byrd said that it is important to teach children about personal and body safety.
“We see so many children affected by this debilitating epidemic … and it’s always after the fact. Sexual abuse/assault is taboo,” said Byrd. “People will talk all day long about violence, but mention sexual assault and people hush. It’s tough, and most of all people just aren’t believed. It is of utmost importance to believe anyone no matter how old they are. Believing them is the first step and I feel the most crucial step.”
Byrd offers some tips for talking with your child about body safety.
1. Teach children accurate names of private body parts.
2. Avoid focusing exclusively on “stranger danger.” Keep in mind that most children are abused by someone they know and trust.
3. Teach children about body safety and the difference between “okay” and “not okay” touches.
4. Let children know that they have the right to make decisions about their bodies. Empower them to say no when they do not want to be touched, even in non-sexual ways (e.g., politely refusing hugs) and to say no to touching others.
5. Make sure children know that adults and older children never need help with their private body parts (e.g., bathing or going to the bathroom).
6. Teach children to take care of their own private parts so they don’t have to rely on adults or older children for help.
7. Educate children about the difference between good secrets (like surprise parties — which are OK because they are not kept secret for long) and bad secrets (those that the child is supposed to keep secret forever, which are not OK).
8. Trust your instincts. If you feel uneasy about leaving a child with someone, don’t do it. If you’re concerned about possible sexual abuse, ask questions.
“The best time to talk to your child about sexual abuse is now. Education is key,” said Byrd.
Byrd said sexual assaults happen every single day and that one out of four girls and one out of six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18, most often, by someone they know and trust.
“The children in our small community are within these staggering numbers and this is a very real problem. I hear a gasp when I present these numbers to groups throughout our community,” said Byrd.
She emphasized educating both adults and children about the facts and long-term effects of sexual assault/abuse on its victims is key.
—Erin Smith can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.