'The ripple effect'

Experts discuss the impact incest and sexual assault has on a communty


Editor's note: What follows is the fifth and final part of a series on incest that ran 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.

While sexual assault is devastating on a victim, those who deal with the issue on a regular basis say the residual effects on a community can also be painful and detrimental.

"People don't realize the long-term consequences or the national costs that we really have when we have children who are being victimized and can't learn at school, who typically don't stay in school," said Cheryl Young, part-owner and a partner at Behavioral Health and Wellness in Grand Junction.

Young said these children are at higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse, and many end up as juveniles in the criminal justice system.

"We have all those losses in terms of removing them from being successful members of the workforce," Young said.

Secondarily, society provides treatment and intervention and bears the costs of housing these children and their offenders, whether in prisons, rehab centers or foster homes, Young said.

The licensed marriage and family therapist said studies have shown 95 percent of teenage prostitutes were sexually abused.

"We must consider the effects of prostitution and its link to sexually transmitted diseases and all that follows from those expenses," Young said. "It really is a very significant ripple effect that is not held within the family. There are financial, medical and legal consequences that everyone has to pay for."

Bryan Garrett, a Mesa County deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted last week's incest case in Craig, said, "These kinds of crimes not only affect the child for the rest of their life, they affect communities as well."

It results in rules that make even normal displays of affection taboo.

"Why do we have all these rules today about why teachers can't touch their students or hug their students?" Garrett said. "It is because one person in one community violated that trust and the whole community is affected because they want to protect their children."

Laney Gibbes, a therapist at Yampa Valley Psychotherapists, said the sex crimes destroy the trust community members have with each other, especially when people learn a neighbor they may have known perpetrated such acts.

It causes members to look at each other with raised eyebrows, and leaves residents wondering if they are safe in their streets and homes, Gibbes said.

"We become skeptical of behavior that would normally be healthy, such as an adult helping a child with school, inviting them over for dinner, or taking them to a baseball game," Garrett said. "All the things that we'd like to see an adult do are also things pedophiles use to seduce children."

When a parent looks at a neighbor befriending their child, they're thinking, "What's going on here," Garrett said.

"We shouldn't have to think like that," Garrett said.

Crimes of incest, sexual abuse and sexual assault aren't "loud," obvious crimes such as murder, the prosecutor said. They're subtle.

"But the effects, the secondary effects of these crimes are so devastating to a community," Garrett said. "It tears the fabric of a community. But in this case, in Craig, the community really came behind the victims."

Helping communities to heal

Kelly McBride, of the ethics faculty at Poynter Institute, said the media can play a role in the community's healing process and has a responsibility to cover sexual assault as a social issue instead of just an "event."

The Poynter Institute is a school in Florida dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders. According to its Web site, Poynter stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse.

McBride was one of the faculty members who convened a conference on the coverage of rape in October 2002. She also has talked to journalists and rape victims and people who have been both about how the issue is covered in the media. She also has written extensively on the topic.

"It is incredibly difficult to cover this well and several forces are working against the media," McBride said.

Because it is such an uncomfortable and complicated topic, journalists often "throw up their hands and say, "We can't cover this -- we can't get to the truth," McBride said.

McBride said it is incredibly complicated but it also is incredibly common, adding that because there is such a high cost to a community, there also is substantial value in bringing the issue to light.

"We (the media) can cover it well and it's a value to the community to tell these stories about sexual abuse," McBride said.

Facts regarding sexual abuse, such as rape victims being predominantly children, are issues people do not want to acknowledge, she said.

"No one wants to admit that, people want to deny it," McBride said.

But at the same time, McBride said there is a pent up demand that these stories be told because "people want these stories to be told."

The media, in its watch dog role, can hold prosecuting authorities accountable, which can impact how survivors move forward.

"There is a toll on the survivor if the survivor doesn't feel justice has been served," McBride said.

Sometimes prosecuting authorities try to get a plea agreement quickly because they believe that by not prolonging the case they are helping survivors by resolving the issue quickly.

"That's the assumption," McBride said. "They are attempting to protect the victims through plea agreements but they sometimes end up hurting the survivors when justice is not perceived to have been served."

Pat Tessmer, executive director of Moffat County Advocates-Crisis Support Services, however, said a trial is not necessarily the best thing for a victim.

Tessmer said she counsels victims on what they want out of the process, not necessarily the outcome.

For some victims of sexual assault, Tessmer said, a plea agreement is much better than a trial where a victim may be criticized and viewed with skepticism and face the possibility that the offender may walk away with no penalty what so ever.

"I commend any prosecutor who comes forward with a sex abuse case because they are so difficult to prove," Tessmer said.

Tessmer said public discussion of the issue is important.

"Abuse thrives in secrecy," Tessmer said.

Through covering the issue, survivors maybe motivated to come forward, McBride said.

"It may not result in an increase of reports to the police but an increase of reports to counseling services and support groups," McBride said journalists also have their assumptions, such as a victim never should be identified.

"Adult victims should be given the choice as to whether they want to be identified or not," McBride said. "Sometimes by using their names it can help themselves and others by demystifying the experience."

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