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'We all need to be part of the solution'

Krystle Wagner • Feb 20, 2018 at 12:00 PM

About 60 community members gathered Monday night to discuss sexual assault.

The town hall meeting at the Grand Haven Community Center provided resources that are available locally, while attendees discussed what needs to be done to decrease sexual harassment and assault. 

Extended Grace Executive Director Barbara Lee VanHorssen said the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are putting a spotlight on a “historic problem.” Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, VanHorssen said, citing a statistic from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

Megan Hennessey, a clinical services supervisor for the Center for Women in Transition (CWIT), spoke about the types of response to trauma — fight, flight and freeze. A person’s response to freeze and shift into survivor mode can be difficult for people to understand why a victim didn’t respond, she said.

“Sexual assault is the fault of the person committing the sexual assault,” Hennessey said.

Guilt, shame and post-traumatic stress disorders are also reactions survivors may face.

One solution is to offer empathy to survivors, Hennessey said.

Henrietta Hadley, of WINC: For All Women Veterans, said her organization started as a referral service for female veterans, and they've grown to include current servicewomen and spouses because of the need. The Muskegon organization is working alongside Challenge America to create a military sisterhood, and they want Lansing to do more to support female veterans in need, Hadley said.

About 30 percent of children who are sexually assaulted report the abuse within the first year it occurred, said Darcy Komejan, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center. Some children are threatened and intimidated into not speaking up, Komejan said.

About 94 percent of the offenders were someone in the child’s life who was trusted.

“The dynamics of this are complicated,” Komejan said.

The Children’s Advocacy Center provides a range of services — counseling for the entire family, support groups and using a multi-disciplinary team approach for each case.

Children who are abused and don’t receive help are three times more likely to have issues in school and with law enforcement, Komejan said. Within the past six months, there has been a 42 percent increase in families seeking their assistance, she added. Komejan attributes the increase to children realizing that it’s OK to report abuse, and there are more individuals coming back for additional training after seeing cases reported in the media.

Komejan said they expect to see about 500 children in new cases in Ottawa County this year.

Jake Jenison, of the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office, said it’s difficult to prosecute cases because of the lack of evidence if abuse is not immediately reported. The courtroom and facing the individual can also be scary for children, he said.

When pursuing a case, Jenison said they look at how traumatic a trial would be on survivors and the role a plea negotiation could play in the case.

In the past two weeks, there have been 15 cases, Jenison said.

Seth Mika, a Call to Action team leader for CWIT, speaks with men and boys about healthy relationships and respect. He said there are four things that can be done: treat women with the utmost respect and as equals; have conversations with men and boys about respect and healthy relationships; stand up against demeaning jokes; and see it as a human issue and not just a women’s issue.

At least two-thirds of Americans report that sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem, said Danielle Smith from Shape Corp. In 2017, 7,000 incidents were reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Smith. Between 70 and 90 percent of incidents aren't reported out of fear of being fired, fear they won’t be believed, and a belief that nothing will be done, she said.

Some of the ways workplaces can prevent sexual harassment is by having a prevention strategy, written policies and procedures, supplemental training for managers, and by going beyond compliance. Smith said that hiring more women is another strategy because women aren’t as likely to harass and their presence shifts the workplace culture.

After panelists presented their information, the audience discussed roles each person plays in sexual harassment, which include speaking out when comments are made, being aware of community resources, being role models, and educating adults and children.

Attendees also discussed what the community can do to decrease sexual assault and harassment. Some of the suggestions included having an informational series, education for all ages, provide materials to have conversations at home and support agencies involved in the work.

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