Perspective

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Did you hear our Perspective this morning on WNIJ?  If you’re not a radio listener, check it out at this LINK.

 

Outgoing Kentucky governor Matt Bevin is using his final days in office to make a powerful statement. On Nov. 22, Bevin announced he was pardoning Paul Hurt, a man serving life in prison for sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter. If there is one thing I thought we could agree on, even in a country as divided as ours seems to be, I thought we could all agree that the abuse of children is a heinous crime for which people should be punished.

The facts around Hurt’s case are complicated and the pardon seems to rest on the activism of the judge in the original 2001 conviction who later worked privately to convince the victim to recant her testimony. The issues when you start digging into the case are far beyond what can be managed in a short Perspective.  But what isn’t complicated is this: we as adults have the ultimate responsibility for protecting our children. How we respond when a child discloses abuse and how we support them after that disclosure makes all the difference for how they will heal and whether that abuser will face consequences.

I believe the victim in Hurt’s case has had justice snatched away from her. I believe Matt Bevin has sent a message to child abusers that they will not be held accountable for harming children.  I believe our world is a more dangerous place for children because of this pardon.  And I believe that is completely unacceptable.

I’m Lynnea Erickson Laskowski and that’s my perspective.

Bevin, Bye.

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Content Warning: discussion of sexual abuse, sexual predators, and the legal system. No descriptions of sexual acts.

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As one of his final acts as Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin has taken it upon himself to pardon a convicted child abuser. (LINK) The case is a highly unusual one that hinges upon a retired judge who became convinced of the innocence of the man he once convicted.

In 2001, Paul Donel Hurt was convicted of sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter. The child reported the abuse at the time to her stepmother who contacted police. The child was able to describe in graphic detail what had been done to her.  She also exhibited many of the red flags typically associated with sexual trauma. Her behavior, her knowledge, and her testimony helped a jury convict Hurt of criminal sexual abuse and he was sentenced to life in prison.

The judge who oversaw the case, Stephen Mershon [and no, I’m not giving him an honorific here on purpose], began to correspond with Hurt in prison and eventually became convinced that Hurt was an innocent man.  He then began to communicate with the victim to try to convince her of the same. In 2015, after contact from Mershon, the victim recanted her 2001 testimony, saying that she had not actually been abused by Hurt. Mershon went so far as to assist the victim in writing a letter to a previous Governor asking to pardon her stepfather.  That attempt failed as did Hurt’s many appeals of his conviction.

Even after Mershon’s intervention and the victim’s 2015 recanting of her testimony, judges still refused to overturn Hurt’s conviction. The judicial opinion (LINK here) written at that time states that the victim only recanted her testimony after interference from Mershon and that her recantation was much less compelling and much more inconsistent than her original testimony. The appeals court ruled that Hurt’s conviction should stand.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Hurt’s guilt, Mershon felt compelled to interfere and Governor Bevin felt compelled to do the same.  When Hurt was released from prison after his pardon, Mershon was the one to pick him up and drive him home.

Now, you might be asking yourself, if the victim recanted, why am I so upset by this? From the outside, this might look like an innocent man finally receiving justice. But as an expert working in the movement to end sexual violence, this case is all too familiar and shows the failings of our society to understand trauma and victimization.  There are a few important lessons we need to learn from this miscarriage of justice:

  1. Children RARELY lie about being sexually abused.  If a child has disclosed abuse to you, believe them.
  2. Children will often feel guilt over loved ones or trusted adults who face consequences for abuse. Given that 90-93% of child abusers are someone the child knows, this guilt is common.  It is not unusual that a child might later recant a disclosure of abuse because they are worried about a loved one.  It is also not uncommon that community members or family will make that child feel guilty if they are not very careful about consistently reminding the child that the abuse and the consequences the adult is facing are not their fault. Children who feel guilty will often recant abuse, even years later, to try to safe a loved one or a family relationship.
  3. Trauma is confusing and those with power should be mindful that they can alter or impact a victim’s memory by gaslighting them about what really happened.
  4. When we don’t hold offenders accountable, they will continue to abuse.  When we publicly don’t hold offenders accountable, we give the green-light to other abusers that they will not be caught. A pardon like this undermines justice for one young victim and empowers countless other predators who feel secure that they, like Paul Donel Hurt, will not face consequences.

The key is this: when any survivor of abuse tells you about their experience, believe them. That is the most important thing we can do. This is even more important for children who will look to us for how they should feel about what happened to them. Tell children you believe them, tell them it isn’t their fault, and fight like hell to keep them safe.

If you’ve been a victim of child sexual abuse, now or in the past, Safe Passage is here and we will believe you.  Call us 24/7 at 815-756-5228.

 

 

Ally

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A message from our Volunteer Coordinator, Pam Rosales:

Ally by Jaz Sufi

The movement to end sexual violence is filled with activists that are passionate in ending other forms of social injustice. In a culture where People of Color experience higher rates of sexual violence, racial equality is deeply interwoven in the movement. As the Volunteer Coordinator of Safe Passage, I meet passionate individuals who are dedicated in both fights. Being a Filipina Muslim American, I’m aware of just how pervasive racism lurks within this space.

This space, where survivors of color seek sanctuary and healing, is often times permeated with well-intended individuals claiming to be allies. Whose ‘wokeness’ is as performative as the ethnic artifacts hanging on the walls from their last mission trip. Jaz Sufi illustrates this performance in her poem:

“When I say ‘woke’, I mean she keeps the city up at night listen to how loud her allyship is, like it’s only worth the effort if everyone can hear its echo. She says ‘fireworks’ I say ‘gunshots’ she says I’m wrong, but you’ll never catch her in the kind of neighborhood where you learn to tell the difference…When I say ‘woke’, I mean she knows all the right words. Says ‘microaggression’ and tries to shrink me smaller. Says ‘white fragility’ and shatters into shrapnel. Blames the brown girl for all of her bruises as she carves the meat from my bones. But of course, the only damage here is what was done to her, by me, the terrorist.”

People of color who survive trauma from sexual assault are not free from the trauma of racism. They have to carry the heavy weight of both. If racial violence continues, sexual violence persists, and vice versa. People of color experience victim blaming with the added baggage of racism. When a person of color seeks support for their sexual assault, not only do they worry about whether or not they will be believed, but they have to worry about how their race affects their journey. Will the color of their skin affect whether or not they will receive proper medical care when they get a rape-kit done? If they share their story, will people blame their culture for being ‘oppressive’ and ‘backwards’? Will their citizenship be the focus of the conversation instead? This is the trauma that People of Color endure, often by the hands of “allies.”

Do impactful, genuine allies exist? Yes. This post is not about them. This post is about those who exploit the oppression of People of Color to wear as evidence for their activism. This post is about the “allies” who grab the microphone from us to speak for us, and then receive the accolades that should have been given to us. The thing about these allies, is that even though they might not see themselves as problematic, the people of color around them can spot them out easily. We see you, and we are not fooled.

While reading books like White Fragility is a start, it is not enough. There’s no simple answer to this complexity. I wish I can say that the answer is to travel, to have more People of Color in your inner-circle, to educate yourself on issues of racism, to learn more about our peoples’ history and culture – but I have seen “allies” partake in all of those things and still get it wrong. Instead, their knowledge of our culture and experience is weaponized against us through the form of tokenization, gaslighting and white saviorism. We do not need you to free us. We do not need you to speak for us. We do not need you coming into our ancestral lands, wearing our traditional clothing, speaking our mother tongue, and then stealing our identities to make yourself look “worldly.” We need you to listen. We need you to start by believing when you are held accountable on your racial abuse. We need you to be silent when we speak.

So I ask this: if I asked the people of color in your life what type of ally you are, what would they say?

T[M]I

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I’ve never seen the word “hymen” posted so frequently on my Twitter timeline.

In case you missed the news, rapper T.I. recently mentioned in a podcast that he goes with his daughter to the gynecologist each year to check that her hymen is intact.

Yep.  You read that correctly. (LINK here, if you don’t believe me.)

It is hard to know where to start with this one because there are so many things wrong with this. I suppose the best place to start is a reminder that this isn’t just a T.I. problem.  “Virginity Tests” and purity culture are as old as the patriarchy. As long as people have had sexual agency, other people have been trying to police their sexuality. Virginity tests, chastity belts, purity balls (not to be confused with Truck Nutz), genital mutilation and just straight-up shame have all been used (and are still being used) to keep people from having the independence and information to practice safe, healthy sexuality.

So just to clear a few things up:

  • Hymens are irrelevant.  Some people have them, some people don’t.  Some hymens break when you have sex for the first time.  Some break long before that due to activity. Some don’t break at all. You can’t tell someone’s sexual history from the structure of their genitalia.
  • Virginity is a cultural construct. It is not a thing you can lose or give away. It is a cultural frame of reference and it doesn’t matter (or even exist) if you don’t want it to! Having sex or not having sex does not change who you are as a person.
  • Your sexual history does not change your value.  If you’ve had one partner, zero partners, ten partners, or 10,000 partners, you are just as valuable as anyone else. If you choose to be abstinent at any point in your life, that is just fine.  If you choose to be abstinent until you get married, more power to you.  You do you!  That choice, however, does not make you any more moral or any better than someone who is making a different choice.
  • Sex does not change who you are as a person, no matter what.  You are not chewed-up gum, unsticky tape, unwrapped candy, or any other horrible analogy.  You are a person who deserves respect.

Aside from the lack of science and the unwarranted policing of people’s bodies, hypervigilance around virginity sends the message that your body doesn’t belong to you.  It sends the message that your body belongs to your father until it belongs to your husband. Too many young girls have been brought up with this message and have been taught that they aren’t in charge of their own bodies and their own sexuality. This leads to a culture that expects and tolerates sexual abuse.

And penetration by a doctor with a medical instrument for any non-medical reason IS ASSAULT.  And let me tell you, there is no valid medical reason to “check for a hymen”, so virginity tests are also abuse.

We may not all be taking our daughters for yearly hymen checks or locking up a metal chastity belt, but we all live in a culture that defines a woman’s value by her lack of sexual partners and sexual agency. We all live in a culture that values [female] virginity over enthusiastic consent. We all live in a culture that that tolerates and excuses sexual abuse and assault. The question is, what will be do to change that culture?

Counselor’s Column–June 2019

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Melissa McGraw, Director of Counseling Services at Safe Passage

What is Human Trafficking?

In June several domestic violence staff attended a training on human trafficking in Springfield.  Domestic violence and rape crisis centers are seeing more and more victims of human trafficking entering shelters or seeking counseling services.  And, yes, trafficking is occurring in DeKalb County.

Human trafficking may involve either sex trafficking or labor trafficking.  It includes recruiting, harboring, or obtaining a person by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude or the sex trade.  There is an intersection between domestic violence and trafficking in that survivors of trafficking may be trafficked by an intimate partner or family member.  Contrary to popular belief, victims of trafficking are not always immigrants from other countries.  Victims of trafficking may not immediately identify that they are being trafficked.  Advocates and counselors are learning to ask specific questions to help identify if their clients are not only victims of domestic violence or sexual assault but also may be victims of trafficking.

Trafficking survivors often present with significant trauma histories and symptoms as a result of their traumas.  The counseling staff have worked to help these clients identify and process their feelings of shame and betrayal related to being trafficked by someone they thought they trusted and loved.  This may be a long-term process that also involves connection to case management and legal services.

As a result of this training, Safe Passage has staff who are more equipped to identify and meet the unique needs of trafficking survivors.

If you’d like to learn more about trafficking and how to recognize and support survivors OR if you think you may be a victim of trafficking, call us 24/7 at 815-756-5228.

Pulse-2019

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It has been three years since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Our staff have been working the last few days to plan a Pride event and it hits home that LGBTQIA+ rights have come so far but have so far to go. Pride events are common. PFLAG and GSA groups are popping up in our schools and communities. We have local therapists and clinics that cater specifically to queer youth. Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states.

And yet, Pulse is a reminder that being able to get married isn’t the end goal.  Pulse is a reminder that having a Pride event in your community isn’t the main goal.  Pulse is a reminder that feeling safe to be out isn’t the main goal.  The main goal is nothing less than complete freedom from oppression for the LGBTQIA+ community.

It is important to remember that many of the victims of the Pulse massacre were Latinx. Racism is just as rampant in our country as homophobia and the oppressions LGBTQIA+ folx experience often intersect. Pride, safety, and community are not just for cis-white-LG and B folks. We have to remember the unique burden racism places on people of color in queer spaces. We have to remember the unique burden transphobia places on trans folks. We have to remember that we’re not free until we are all free.

And we have to remember the role that domestic violence plays in all of this. As a Domestic Violence agency, we have a role to play in addressing mass violence.  Most mass murderers have a history of abusive behavior. When we stand together as a community against domestic violence (in all its manifestations), we stand against massacres like Pulse as well.  We can’t give up. This work is literally life-and-death.

We remember and mourn the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and we vow to keep working until every queer space is safe.

We’re not safe.

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Content Warning: discussion of domestic violence and murder

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A DeKalb County man recently returned to the area fleeing California after allegedly shooting another man to death. (Links to local reporting on the crime HERE and HERE). Mark Sypien had a host of criminal convictions in the northern Illinois area, the vast majority of which were convictions on domestic battery and violations of order of protection charges.

This case shows, once again, that domestic violence is a threat to ALL of us. We should care about domestic violence simply because it is a threat to the victims, but if we can’t work up enough national attention for that, can we at least be honest about the very real threat to the general public when abusers are allowed to escape accountability?

Sypien clearly showed that he was unconcerned about breaking the law.  He abused intimate partners.  He violated court orders of protection.  He harassed victims and family members.  And then he moved to California and did the exact same thing.  The man Sypien murdered was the father of one of Sypien’s former partners.  John Moore, age 76, was concerned about Sypien’s violence, had previously obtained a restraining order against Sypien, and had spoken to family members about his concerns that Sypien might continue to harass the family. His concern was, devastatingly, justified.

How did Sypien continue to evade law enforcement for so long?  How was he able to obtain a firearm when he had so clearly demonstrated a inclination toward violence? How can we tolerate a world where so many victims live in fear of an abusive partner returning to harass or harm them?

Abusive individuals who are not held accountable are a risk. Violence, stalking, and controlling behavior cannot be tolerated.  We can’t just look the other way. Shooters in the mass shootings that are becoming all-too-common almost always have one thing in common: a history of domestic violence or misogyny.

If we are serious about ending violence in our community, our nation, and our world, we need to take a hard look at domestic abuse. We need to look at how we are raising our kids to have healthy relationships.  We need to talk about the connections between toxic masculinity and violence. We need to hold abusers accountable and we need to commit to working together until everyone is safe.