Reporting Sexual Assault: Combating Stigma and Empowering Survivors

The #MeToo movement has led to an increase in the reporting of prior sexual assault and harassment. Many of these reports have been for assaults occurring years earlier. Time lapses between offense and report vary, but when victims do report, they rarely report to law enforcement. Connie Chung’s recent revelation of an assault that took place 50 years ago is an example of this. The reasons sexual assault victims choose not to report or delay their reporting are numerous, but include victim blaming, shame, guilt, exposure of their private life, not wanting to hurt their family or the perpetrator’s family, fear of retaliation, denial, and many more. The increased reporting of sexual assault has shed some light on what professionals refer to as the dark figure of crime, or the crimes that are unreported to authorities. The decision to report a sexual assault should be one made by the victim. However, as we have seen time and time again, delays in reporting are often used by perpetrators “prove” it never happened, casting doubt on the victim’s credibility, reinforcing the reasons the victim stayed silent, and further contributing to sexual assault’s place as the dark figure of crime.

The purpose of this post is to help victims of sexual assault combat this societal bias and provide supportive suggestions to sexual assault victims. Perhaps one might be found useful, perhaps several, but as the pervasiveness of sexual assault has become more apparent, useful tools that give power to the victim’s experience are needed.

  • Considering documenting the incident as soon as possible in a way that will be seen as credible later. This might be something as easy as sending an email to oneself or to a trusted friend. Such a statement could also be signed in front of a notary without fear of it being reported. Be as objective, but as descriptive as possible in the documentation including time, place, descriptions of clothing and behavior, and context (date, acquaintance, etc).
  • Save important physical evidence such as the clothes you wore, phone records, GPS information, or photographs with time stamps of any injuries.
  • Tell a trusted friend and ask the friend to document the event for you.
  • Confide in a doctor, therapist, lawyer, or other professional. Documentation in a medical record is seen as more reliable than the reports of friends or relatives and professionals are required by law to keep your records confidential until you give them permission to release them. Ask the professional to include specific details of your report.
  • Consider calling a rape/sexual support hotline. They can provide information on services and support for victims of sexual assault. Some organizations offer victims support as they navigate the legal system and decide on the best course of action such as whether to submit to a physical forensic evaluation or report the incident to law enforcement. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) has operators available 24-hours a day and also provide a live chatfeature as well.
  • Be familiar with local resources and make sure your minor children, both boys and girls, have this information available as often children are afraid to even tell their parents when they have been assaulted, particularly if the perpetrator is someone known to them, a romantic partner, or if the teen was doing something a parent would not have otherwise approved of. For example, Austin is fortunate to have the SAFE Alliancewith the 24-hour hotline 512-267-SAFE (7233). The SAFE Alliance provides advice, support, and even a free confidential medical forensic exam at SAFE’s Eloise’s House for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Find an online chat room or Facebook group to get support from others who have been through the same experience.

For too long, the norm has been to stay silent and suffer alone. Victims may not always feel like it is in their best interest to report an incident immediately following. However, a sense of empowerment can strike at any time in a victim’s life and having the information you need when that moment comes can be comforting when you are ready.

Expert Testimony and The Daubert Standard of Admissibility

Expert opinions must meet the Daubert Standard of admissibility in Texas courtrooms. As such, opinions must be scientifically valid and relevant to the facts of the case. When considering whether expert opinion meets the Daubert standard, a judge must consider whether the technique or method presented has been tested and subjected to peer review, the rate of error involved in the scientific methodology, and the general acceptance among the scientific community. The “Daubert Standard” stems from the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. In that case, it was argued that an anti-nausea drug, Bendectin, caused birth defects and limb deformities in the infants of women who consumed the drug while pregnant. Various experts, both scientists and doctors, testified about the science behind these limb abnormalities secondary to Bendectin exposure.

Judges have wide discretion in the admissibility of expert testimony, particularly in family law. Prior to the Daubert Standard was the Frye Standard. Many states still use Frye as the standard for admissibility. Frye focused on science that was generally accepted by the scientific community. However, Daubert refines Frye and raises the standard by requiring evidence of reliability, validity, and error rate – important concepts in scientific research.

Most therapeutic interventions do not meet the Daubert Standard. That does not mean that such therapy approaches are not effective for therapy patients. What it does mean is that therapy is a process oriented-exercise, but not prediction-oriented. The nature of admissible, forensic social science evidence suggests that the method of scientific analysis can predict human behavior on some level. It is inappropriate for therapists engaged in treatment with a client to opine about custody, visitation, or proximate cause of injury (as examples) for those clients. If an attorney suspects a therapist may be called to give such opinions without having conducted a forensic assessment, the attorney should consider a Daubert challenge. During a Daubert challenge, the attorney should press an expert witness to provide the court with the information needed to satisfy the prongs of the Daubert Standard (peer review, error rate, and general acceptance). This does not mean that therapists cannot provide valuable evidence. If an attorney wishes to call a therapist as an expert, it is important to keep in mind that therapists are technically “fact” witnesses, not expert witnesses. They can testify to diagnosis, prognosis, treatment plans, treatment compliance, and what was discussed in sessions. What is inappropriate with regards to the Daubert Standard is any predictions that a therapist might make from this information.

In family law, judges often err on the side of hearing as much information as possible in order to assess the best interest of a child, who are some of our most vulnerable citizens. However, as an attorney, being clear about what constitutes scientific admissibility can help you know what witnesses to call, what to ask them, and how to prepare for therapist testimony that might go beyond what the law intended.

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Social Media Use Linked to Increased Loneliness for iGen

The NPR show All Things Considered interviewed Dr. Jean Twenge on August 7, 2017, on how smart phones are making kids unhappy.  Dr. Twenge noted that the iGen generation (a term she has coined), those born between 1995 and 2012, are unhappy in part due to smartphones.  According to Dr. Twenge, the iGen are on the brink of a major mental health crisis.  At first glance, this seems to be confined to the iGen, but it can be applied to all generations that use smartphones and social media in general.  People do not spend as much time face to face.  There is a lack of interpersonal communication.  The iGen may not know how to interact interpersonally and when confronted with the opportunity to do so, some fail miserably.  Going to college for the first time for an iGen may be a prime example of how interpersonal skills are necessary for forming lasting friendships and combating loneliness.  Moving into the dorm, having a roommate for the first time, joining a fraternity/sorority or club, interacting in the dining hall, going to class where discussion is necessary, all of these things require social skills.

It feels counterintuitive that social media would increase loneliness. But after considering it and reading Dr. Twenge’s interview, it makes complete sense.  Social media only seems to be either self-aggrandizing or negative towards others. Social media posts seem either narcissistic or bullying.  Things are said on social media that would never be stated face to face.  Things are said through texts that are misinterpreted.  Relationships are assumed because you are “friends” on Facebook.  It’s like a constant high school reunion online.

Dr. Twenge said, “Given that using social media for more hours is linked to more loneliness, and that smartphones were used by the majority of Americans around 2012, and that’s the same time loneliness increases, that’s very suspicious. You can’t absolutely prove causation, but by a bunch of different studies, there’s this connection between spending a lot of time on social media and feeling lonely.”

It’s the classic chicken or egg scenario: are people lonely because of social media use or are they lonely and turn to social media?  Either way, the end result is the same, loneliness.

Link between hand held screen time and speech delays

A recent article from  CNN speaks to hand held screen time and speech delays.  Many of us are guilty of using iPads and iPhones as distractors for children.  Many of us use them as a distractor for ourselves.  How many times have you been out at a restaurant, having a lovely meal, and your spouse (or you) spend a significant amount of time on your phone?  Guilty as charged.

Now it seems that the devices are causing harm to young children in the form of speech delays.  A new study found “that the more time children between the ages of six months and two years spent using handheld screens such as smartphones, tablets and electronic games, the more likely they were to experience speech delays.”  This is the first study of its kind.

Parents may be versed in screen time as it pertains to computers, video games, and television.  It is of note that now handheld devices are included in this group for screen time.  It seems obvious, but nevertheless, is worth contemplating.  It may be hard to quantify handheld device screen time because it has become such a reflexive response to use them.

Perhaps we all could learn from this study and track how much time is spent on our devices.  It could be very eye opening and perhaps a bit dismaying.

How much can a child endure?

By now, everyone has heard about the shooting of Philando Castile on July 6, 2016, by a police officer in St. Paul.  By now, everyone knows the outcome of the trial: Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges on June 16, 2017.  He was also fired the same day of the acquittal.

But this blog post isn’t about that. It is about a mother who witnessed and video taped the event. It is about the child who was in the back seat of the car. It is about the child who was silent during the entire incident.  It about a child, Dae’Anna, who was in survival mode at the age of four.

Diamond Reynold’s, Dae’Anna’s mother, said that she had taught her daughter to remain calm.  In a September 10, 2016 article in the Washington Post, Eli Saslow wrote, “Diamond had taught her daughter to react that way. They had been practicing what Diamond called “survival skills” since before her daughter turned 2. Duck at the sound of gunfire. Make yourself small whenever you feel threatened. Never touch guns or needles. The more scared you are, the less noise you should make. These were some of the lessons Diamond had passed along from one generation to the next, and her daughter had learned them well.”

When I was 4, in 1968, the lessons being taught to me were something akin to:  say please and thank you, don’t talk to strangers, wash your hands, be nice to your friends, respect your elders.  The biggest risk that I remember was possible razor blades in apples at Halloween.  There was no talk of ducking to the sound of gunfire and making yourself small.  There was no talk about guns or needles.

No one should have to endure what DaeAnna and her mother, Diamond, did on that day in July.  No one should witness a loved one being shot and killed, especially a child.  I wonder what the long term effects of witnessing such a brutal shooting will have on DaeAnna?  Only time will tell.

Mass shooters and domestic violence:  History and statistics do not lie

It’s all too common to associate mass shooters with the disenfranchised individual or a terroristic act.  While these are true associations, another association is that shooters have a history of aggression and violence toward women.  A Washington Post article written by Nancy Leong about the shooting of Republicans while they practiced baseball discusses this issue and points out a number of mass shooters that had a history of violence against women.  Ms. Leong analyzes mass shootings from 2009-2016 and, “concluded that at least 54 percent of mass shootings — or 85 out of 156 incidents — involved a current or former intimate partner or family member as a victim. Other research has found that those who abuse their domestic partners are also more likely to abuse children and animals, and that 68 percent of men in a sample of batterers exhibited other “problem behaviors,” such as fights, previous arrests or drunken driving.”

Domestic violence is not taken seriously.  It is not seen as a predictor of future violent behavior.   Leong writes, “A mass shooting tends to trigger passionate arguments about gun control and mental health services; discussion of how to respond to domestic violence often doesn’t even come up.”

Until the issue of domestic violence is discussed openly and honestly without stigmatization, positive changes cannot be expected to occur.

5 Myths about Fatherhood

There have been many myths regarding fatherhood throughout time.  In an Washington Post article written by Paul Raeburn, he speaks about a Supreme Court decision that , “struck down a law that treated unwed mothers and fathers differently when granting citizenship to their children born outside the United States — the requirements for fathers were stiffer. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, authoring a majority opinion joined by five other justices, wrote that the law was based on gender stereotypes that violated the notion of equal protection. The law implied “that unwed fathers care little about, indeed are strangers to, their children.”

In light of this Supreme Court decision, Raeburn writes about the myths of fatherhood that seem to endure.  Until we can get past the myths, fathers will never gain ground on being treated as equals when it comes to parenting.

Dr. Sherry panel presentation

Dr. Alissa Sherry will be part of a panel presentation in Traverse City, Michigan discussing the legal and psychological issues surrounding the concept of parental alienation. It is being hosted by the Grand Traverse-Leelanau-Antrim Bar Association and will be held on May 24, 2017 at 11am.

She will be presenting along with Judge Melanie D. Stanton, Probate/Family Division Judge-Grand Traverse, and attorney Ashish S. Joshi, Ann Arbor, MI.  It is an honor for Dr. Sherry to be on the panel with these two accomplished professionals.

Understanding the Rape Victim Experience Continues to Evade Legal Institutions

This month, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson has faced some tough scrutiny over her decision to to jail a mentally ill rape victim in an effort to insure her testimony against her rapist. Three issues come to mind when considering the facts surrounding this decision. First, the fact that jail appears to be the only available option to keep an innocent, vulnerable individual safe should be a real concern for everyone in society. Second, there appears to be a fundamental lack of empathy by the DA’s office regarding the victim in this case. It is possible the victim’s mental illness is at the core of lack of empathy, as fear and misunderstanding of mental illness tend to cause people to objectify people with mental illness and treat them less humanely. Finally, despite the post-Cosby conversation about rape victims, there remains a suspiciousness and mistrust of rape victims’ intentions and motives. Just last week, Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky asked for a transfer from criminal to civil court duty following outcries by activists who thought the 6-month sentence he imposed on a rapist was too lenient. The victim in this case was unconscious and the rapist was chased down by observers indicating that he knew what he was doing was wrong. In each of these cases, pinpointing where the disconnect lies in the institutional understanding of the rape victim experience is multifaceted, culturally, and historically informed. However, the media’s efforts to bring these stories to the public for scrutiny is a step in the right direction.