Sexual assaults have been up in Washington state.
According to San Juan County Detective Ray Harvey, sexual assault crimes against children, in particular, have increased 25%. Dave Dunaway, SAFE San Juans Executive Director, said that in the fiscal year of 2021, the organization provided 2,744 hours of supportive services to 162 survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that continues long after the actual event. SAFE San Juans wants islanders to know that it is available to make provide as much support as possible.
An online presentation was held on Feb. 17 to inform the community about the signs of sexual assault and what to expect from a medical exam, police investigation and the criminal court system. Dunaway was pleased with the turnout.
“There’s a lot of confusion and I think you know, anxiety around what happens when somebody reports,” said Dunaway. “And they’re like, you know, what’s going to happen to me now, what can I expect when I make a report, how am I going to be treated?
He said this does not include the numbers of those who may have reached out to the Sheriff’s Office but not SAFE San Juans.
Dunaway said the Zoom meeting has been in the works for years.
“The bottom line is the subjects that we’re talking about represent the things that people have asked us for more information about and represent where there generally has been confusion,” he said.
Therapy at SAFE San Juans is funded through a variety of means, including grants and donations. It is free to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault on a case-by-case basis. Staff provides in-person and teletherapy appointments. Survivors seeking therapy will be connected with an advocate first to assess their safety and needs and then link them with any other services or resources.
Speakers included Dunaway, Harvey, SAFE San Juans therapist Samantha Graham, detective Lucas Peters and San Juan County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Teresa Barnett. SAFE Program Director Courtney Smith led the meeting.
Graham kicked off the presentation by bringing up the subject of looking for the physical signs of childhood sexual assault. This could include bleeding, bruising, swelling, pain when sitting or walking, frequent UTI or yeast infections, burning in the genital area, frequent headaches, compromised immune system and nausea or vomiting. Behavioral signs could be refusing to bathe or bathing excessively, struggling in school, regressive behavior, running away, self-harm, difficulty focusing and changes in appetite or sleep. Among cases of child sexual abuse reported, 93% are known to the victim, Graham said. Online grooming is also a factor.
To help protect your child, it is important to be involved in their life, know the people in their life, choose caregivers carefully, talk about cybersafety, know the warning signs, encourage them to speak up and listen to them.
She stressed the importance of healing victims to close off the cycle of abuse.
Graham reported that each case and client at SAFE San Juans is unique.
“Some people seek help immediately,” she said. “For others, it can be many years before they decide to come forth. They’ve been living with that trauma for a long time and decide they need help.”
If a victim calls 9-1-1 following an assault, dispatch sends a deputy who will take the initial report. Depending on the case, detectives may be involved immediately or they might not be involved for a day or two. Harvey said they try to make the process as least invasive as possible and that they understand victims might not know all the details upfront.
To make the victims more comfortable, detectives go at the pace the victim prefers, he said.
“We do these quite often; there is probably nothing you’re going to surprise us with,” he said to express that people don’t need to feel ashamed of sharing private information.
However, for those who wait longer, some courses of action might not be viable. With a medical exam, victims are encouraged to schedule one within 96 hours of the assault. Past this time frame, collectible evidence is lost. Those being examined are also encouraged to not shower, drink, or smoke beforehand. An examination is still allowed if the victim has showered, drank or smoked. By law, all hospitals are required to have the capacity to conduct these exams and they take place in a calm and private setting. No matter the circumstances, SAFE San Juans can appoint a medical advocate to assault survivors.
Survivors can receive what is called a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam following an assault free of charge. These services are covered by the state. Advocates are able to meet survivors at the hospital and be present during an exam for support. Advocates can also attend any follow-up medical appointments if a survivor wishes.
An evaluation can be done without filing a report with the police. If a victim decides they want to make a report to law enforcement, they can also decide if they want to move forward with pressing charges.
Barnett said that victims will either reach out to her independently or through a victim advocate. She does not conduct investigations on the case but she works very closely with detectives.
After a felony comes to her office as a referral from the Sheriff’s Office, she makes the final decision on the charges.
Graham made it clear that if legal action is taken, SAFE San Juans cannot provide legal advice but it can connect victims with a legal advocate to help and support them with paperwork and attending legal appointments. They also help with filing and filling out protection orders. The county court also offers system-based sexual assault advocates, separate from SAFE San Juans, to help victims through the legal process.
“We want victims to have the support and the services they need to heal and we are going to help provide them with those resources and help them along the way but we’re not going to put the burden of the investigation or prosecution on them. That is our job, so we’re going to take that,” Barnett said.
There is the possibility that victims may have to testify in court. The case will be resolved either through the trial process or a guilty plea.
The organization also provides crisis intervention and safety planning that can be offered in person or over the 24-hour crisis phone lines, along with appointing a safety planning advocate to individual survivors.
Dunaway said they do not currently have another community training planned, but he is excited for when events can be in-person again, as they will have more opportunities.
“We are here for survivors at any point along in their journey,” Graham said.
SAFE San Juans crisis lines — San Juan Island: 360-378-2345; Orcas Island: 360-376-1234; Lopez Island: 360-468-4567. Visit https://safesj.org/ for more information.