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Sexual assault victim assistance, awareness provided by local advocacy group

Every two minutes, someone in the United States becomes a victim of sexual assault or abuse. Anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, regardless of their gender, race, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or religion. Victims can include women, men, infants, people of color, senior citizens, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities, among others. 

Because victims often choose to not report their assailant to authorities, it is difficult to know just how prevalent sexual violence crimes are. To spread awareness of the issue, April is deemed Sexual Assault Awareness Month. 

Statistics from the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services (FRIS) estimate that, in West Virginia, one in six adult women and one in 21 adult men will be a victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault in her/his lifetime with ages 12-24 at greatest risk. Fifteen was the most frequently reported victim age.

Nearly 82% of all sexual assaults in the state were committed by someone known to the victim and 70% reported the assault happened in a home or residence.  Of the offenders, 93% were males and 70.6% were adults.   

Leann Williams, prevention educator at the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC), said there are a variety of challenges faced by the victims and survivors served at the center, including stalking, harassment and human trafficking. However, domestic violence and sexual violence are probably the two most common.  

With outreach offices run by victim advocates in Monongalia, Taylor, and Preston counties, RDVIC works to bring awareness to issues of sexual violence, support survivors of rape, and to advocate for the equal rights of all individuals to have a life free of violence in West Virginia. 

The organization offers licensed and comprehensive community-based services for victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, human trafficking, and more. 

“All of these victimizations are prevalent in our communities,” Williams said, “and we often serve victims that do not wish to proceed with criminal charges.” 

According to Williams, because every victim comes from a unique situation, the organization tries to meet each individual client where they are and support their decision to report or not report based on what is best for them.  

“The nature of these victimizations is very complex,” she said, “and many survivors wish to find steps forward in their lives that do not involve the criminal justice system and we provide resources and support for them to do just that.” 

Williams explained that some victims would rather go the civil legal route by obtaining domestic violence protective orders or personal safety orders, or they may not wish to report the crime committed against them in any type of legal setting. 

“One of the services that people aren’t normally aware of is our ability to provide legal assistance,” said Hannah Rhea, RDVIC domestic violence specialist. “We can go with you to file a police report. We can go with you to file a protective order. We can go in the courtroom with you at your hearing or during your interview with the police. We can go with you to all of those things. We can provide accompaniment to most settings within the counties that we serve.  

“I think that’s what stops a lot of people from doing those things is because they don’t want to go alone,” Rhea said. “I think if everybody knew they could call us and we could send somebody to meet them, it would increase the amount of abuse and assaults that are reported and that are charged and prosecuted.” 

Regardless of what decision is made, victims are encouraged to seek medical treatment to prevent potential STDs. A forensic medical exam can also preserve evidence should you choose to seek legal help at that time or at a later date, the decision does not need to be made then.  

When criminal charges are filed, West Virginia State Code states a person is guilty of sexual assault in the first degree when the person engages in sexual intercourse or sexual intrusion with another person and, in so doing, inflicts serious bodily injury upon anyone or employs a deadly weapon in the commission of the act. 

First degree sexual assault can also be applied when a person 14 years old or more, engages in sexual intercourse or sexual intrusion with another person who is younger than 12 years old and is not married to that person. 

West Virginia code separates sexual abuse from assault, saying a person is guilty of sexual abuse in the first degree when the person subjects another person to sexual contact without their consent, and the lack of consent results from forcible compulsion, when a person subjects another person to sexual contact who is physically helpless, or when a person 14 years old or more subjects another person to sexual contact who is younger than 12 years old. 

The sentence for sexual assault conviction is 15-35 years in prison. Conviction of sexual abuse could result in one to five years in prison. Both charges come with possible fines of up to $10,000. 

When talking about sexual assault or abuse, one key word that is often discussed is consent. 

According to FRIS, consent is a clearly spoken, enthusiastic agreement that leaves no questions or doubts. Consent is given voluntarily and willingly, should be given at every stage of a sexual interaction, and can be taken back at any time. Consent is not pressured or forced and cannot legally be given if a person is drunk, drugged or unconscious.  

Even if you are married, in a committed relationship, or have had sexual relations before, you still need consent from all partners before engaging in sexual activities. 

Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. Always have a phone or other communication device and avoid isolating yourself if possible. Trust your instincts – if you don’t feel comfortable, leave.  

If you are living in an abusive or potentially abuse situation, RDVIC advocates can help you create the best plan to keep you safe. 

Williams said RDVIC provides a variety of services including a 24/7 hotline to do crisis intervention, medical or legal advocacy, and a shelter for individuals that are actively fleeing violence.  

Advocates at RDVIC also do peer to peer counseling, run support groups, do simple case management and resource brokering, provide information on their reporting options, and do safety planning. 

According to Williams, the help most often requested is shelter services, medical advocacy, civil legal assistance and peer to peer counseling.   

The group also provides general community outreach, education, and awareness continually as advocates through a prevention program. 

“Our outreach and awareness efforts aim to share that RDVIC exists and spread awareness of the prevalence, dynamics, and impact of domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking and stalking, as well as the services we provide at our organization,” Williams said. 

“Our prevention efforts aim to educate the community on our role of preventing violence through bystander intervention and also works to create more protective factors in our community by educating on body safety, healthy relationships, building social-emotional skills, and recognizing risk factors.” 

Williams said the prevention program uses evidence-based curriculums such as the Monique Burr Foundations Teen Safety Matters, Futures Without Violence’s Coaching Boys Into Men, and Stop it Now’s Circles of Safety.  

“We can also do presentations on bystander intervention, healthy relationships, or work with groups in the community to design presentations to build them protective factors that will help prevent victimization or perpetration of violence,” she said.      

For more information on the sexual assault services available at RDVIC, visit their website