Shining light on a dark subject

Reporting sexual assault takes courage to combat misconceptions, feelings of humiliation

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Editor's note: What follows is the third part of a series on incest that will run throughout this week. It is the policy of the Craig Daily Press not to print the names of the accused or victims in the cases of sexual assault.

Among his other duties as a Moffat County Social Services caseworker, Matt Harris investigates allegations of sexual abuse, which includes confronting the misconception that it "doesn't happen in Craig."

People ask him if he really investigates sex crimes "that much," Harris said.

"It's something I deal with on some level every day," the caseworker said.

Public discussion of the topic may increase awareness of an often-ignored issue, reminding people "this is going on in your backyard," he said.

The latest "backyard" incident ended Friday with the conviction of a Craig man on charges of incest and sexual assault.

Beginning in February 2002, Craig Police Detective Storm Fallon interviewed an incest victim who alleged her father had abused her for years, beginning in grade school.

Fallon conducted the initial interview together with Harris, who was the victim's caseworker.

Fallon was familiar with the family and said the allegations weren't a complete surprise.

"This was always suspected, but watching (the victim) in the interview Feb. 28 brought it home," Fallon said.

During the interview, Fallon had to balance the need to get information with a sensitivity for the emotional state of the victim.

"Most of the time, she was crying to the point she was sobbing," Fallon said. "She was fidgety through the whole interview. There were a couple of times she took what I call a 'modified fetal position.'"

The interview initiated a case that would take more than a year to prosecute and would involve multiple agencies in countless hours of investigation. Fallon's reports alone filled a three-ring binder.

"Other than when I was on maternity leave, there wasn't a week that went by that I didn't do something on (the case)," Fallon said.

The case came to light when a longtime friend of the family, a woman who had known the accused for more than 20 years, learned of the abuse during a telephone conversation with the victim.

It was one of many conversations that took place between the convicted man's daughter and the woman, who wants to remain anonymous, during the disclosure period.

The family friend said there were some warning signs, which, in hindsight, she said she thinks maybe she should have put together. It was a difficult situation for the woman who had known the victim's father for so long. She said she had known him in high school when he had a "code of honor" and had dreams of being a doctor and helping people. She had known him during his time in the Navy, when she said he excelled, winning awards and medals. And she had known him when his wife died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, an event she said forever changed him.

Despite close ties, the friend began to suspect something during the conversations with the victim that preceded allegations of incest.

"She was angry," the friend said. "I knew there was something else going on. She was scared of her dad."

At times, the girl was protective of her father, often denying the physical abuse that led to his arrest months before allegations of sexual abuse came to light.

Jane Paulson, a mental health clinician who counsels sexual abuse victims at Craig Mental Health Center, said it is not uncommon for victims initially to be protective of an abusive parent.

Often, Paulson sees warning signs in "the way (victims) protect the parent before they disclose," Paulson said.

The result is that even when disclosure seems imminent, the details can be elusive. The victim's first report of the abuse in the case that went to trial last week amounted to the admission, "He sexually abused me," the

friend said.

It would take weeks for the family friend to get the details from the teen, a situation not uncommon, Fallon said.

"You have to gain their trust in a very short period of time," Fallon said. "And a lot of times, you're not going to get all the information in one interview."

Most people would be reluctant to talk about their last consensual sexual experience, Fallon said, let alone one in which they were violated.

Fallon said victims often are afraid people won't believe them. They also fear the idea of repeating the story over and over again. The victim who testified in last week's incest case said she had told her story more than 20 times, beginning with the sketchy details she recounted to the family friend.

The conversations took place daily during that period when the friend would press for details while trying to strike a balance with lighter conversations about school and life in general.

"She was embarrassed. Everybody knows her as this tough girl," the friend said. "Her reasoning was that everybody knows she's so tough at school, so why couldn't she keep her dad off of her?"

But the victim was showing signs that she was ready to tell.

"She was coming around," said the family friend said. "She was starting to tell her best friend at school. She wanted to tell her grandmother."

When disclosure came, the friend's reaction was "complete disgust." She said, "I knew he had to be punished. That was the way we had to go. We had to report it."

She first called the victim's caseworker.

"My main concern was not so much the police, it was getting (the victim) help. She needed a professional to talk to about this abuse," she said.

Police did become involved, though, and Fallon said the victim and her sister who testified against their father still impress her.

"They are just incredible people. They have withstood so much in their young lives, and they were able to confront their dad," Fallon said.

Some argue against putting children through that process.

"We do everything we can not to have them testify," said Moffat County Social Services Director Marie Peer.

Harris said he videotapes interviews with child victims, hoping the prosecutor can use the tape instead of having to resort to having the victim testify.

"I would love for them not to have to testify," Fallon said.

Often, however, that isn't feasible when the only witness to the crime is the victim. The victim in last week's case took the stand for hours, testifying to events that left the courtroom silent and stunned.

The resulting conviction will send the victim's father to prison for eight years to life.

The family friend said the conviction was only the first step in the healing process.

"She's been through hell and back. She's a long way from being a normal, healthy girl."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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