Ronni Adams, the Utah chapter leader for the Stop Abuse Campaign, grew up witnessing domestic violence at home and she never thought it would happen to her. Her experience may be a common story for survivors: She met a man. They fell in love. And things were really good for awhile. And then they weren't.
“When I first met him I was a strong, happy, confident person. I've always been very determined and motivated,” Adams said. “We were only married for two years and I was suicidal by the time I divorced him. I was ashamed. It actually wasn't until just recently that I was able to open up and say 'That was domestic violence.'”
Adams says leaving was not just for her own mental and physical health. Studies show her kids benefit too.
“For the rest of their lives it will affect their health, according to the ACE studies,” she said. “The CDC in San Francisco basically showed a strong correlation between trauma that happens to kids in childhood and between lifelong illness and disease. Their lifespan is actually shortened.”
“We see the same dynamics that we see in some of the other rural states across the nation,” said Jill Anderson, executive director for CAPSA. “There isn't a lot of talk about it. I think a lot of times people have the misconception that we live in a safe community—and we do—but some of the most dangerous places for people are their very own home, and that's what we need to address. Even in Cache Valley, which I think a lot of people think 'Oh, it doesn't really happen here,' we had close to 300 people in our shelter last year. And over half of those of course were children. That's a lot in just our little valley. So, it's happening a lot more than people think.”
The Utah Department of Health estimates that one in three women in Utah will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. This statistic may surprise you, but the rate is significantly higher than the national average. Utah also has a domestic violence problem. More than a third of women in Utah report that they have survived some form of domestic violence. So odds are you know someone who has been a victim. You might be wondering how can that be? Perhaps it's because as a society we don't want to talk about such things.
“If you were in a room full of people and you asked them 'How many of you know someone who has experienced cancer?,' you'd get a third or more of the room raising their hands,” Anderson said. “But if you asked that same room 'How many of you have experienced or know someone who's close to you that has experienced domestic or sexual violence?' no one really wants to raise their hand, and yet, one in three [women has], and we just don't talk about it.
There's a shame behind it. A lot of people view it as a private matter when really it affects the entire community. Those children are going to school. People are going to work. I think as a state and as a community we really need to look at how do we address this? So the start is let's talk about it and implement some programs that will help.”
And while Ronni's story may resonate with thousands of women experiencing sexual and domestic violence, there may be a happier ending. There is a movement spreading across communities and police departments in the country. In Utah, It started in West Valley with the adoption of the Start by Believing campaign. This means if someone discloses to you that they were sexually assaulted, you believe them.
“If the very first person the victim tells believes them and supports them, they are more likely to report it, and the more reports come in we can hold perpetrators accountable, and that's where it's all going to start,” Anderson said.
Seth Cawley, a captain at the Weber State Police department says it's an important first step. His department has not only adopted this philosophy, but trained all of its officers to handle assault cases. Because they require a special skill set—one that's being backed with scientific evidence about how the brain functions after traumatic incidents.
“We think it's an important step in helping our survivors,” Cawley said. “A lot of times you were seeing officers treating survivors like they were suspects. They were interrogating them basically. Well, we were causing them more trauma by doing this and so we wanted to take a step back, and try to come together, and do what's best for our victims and survivors.”
The Weber State Police Department recently incorporated trauma informed interviewing, a protocol that enables officers to extract information from victims in a more compassionate way. It's different from traditional interviewing techniques because it's not an interrogation—it accounts for the fact that victims of trauma like rape often experience fragmented memory due to how fear affects brain circuitry.
“Before we were trying to get as much information as possible,” Cawley said. “And what we've later found out is that's not the best way because the trauma has affected their brain to the point where they can't remember certain facts or the order they go in. What we've done now with this protocol is get the basic information: where it happened, who. If they know who. We will later on interview them in more depth to try and help them remember those certain incidences that will help the case be prosecuted effectively.”
Trauma informed interviewing is not just sensitive to trauma survivors, it's also more effective. Since West Valley Police started using the technique, prosecution rates for sexual assault cases quadrupled. The hope is that these successes in the courtroom with spur more victims to come forward because they will know that when they do, they will be believed.
“We teach our officers to be caring, empathetic individuals that believe the survivors that come in,” Cawley said. “And we've found through doing it that way the survivor feels more comfortable and can recall more memories from the incident and helps build a solid case for prosecutors. It allows the officers to basically get the information in a way that's not re-victimizing our survivors, so that they don't feel like they're reliving the incident, or that they're being accused of doing anything wrong.
Because ultimately the survivor has done nothing wrong, whether they have violated some other law it doesn't matter—this is the incident we are worried about. And that's important, getting it out there it's not their fault, it's never been their fault.”
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***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.