The second installment in a three-part series on sexual assault in the territory, in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.
Justice for Perpetrators or a Catch-22?
April 28, 2008 — Years later, as an adult, Sharon George of St. Croix went to her father and asked him: Why had he molested her?
She said it began when she was about eight years old.
"The first experience I remember was he called me into the bathroom. He wanted to teach me about boys. He's telling me, 'This is what boys would want you to do,' and he told me to sit on his lap," George said. Her father had an erection.
He used to visit her room at night, fondling her genitals and breasts. By the time she was 14, the abuse, she said, had progressed to digital penetration. One day, she said she saw him examining what she thought was a balloon in the bathroom. As she looks back, she realizes it was a condom, and a sign of what may lie ahead.
"I really believe he was going to upgrade it from fondling to a sexual act," she said.
At 16, she moved in with a boyfriend to escape her father.
When she eventually confronted her father about the abuse, "He denied it completely." Nevertheless, she said he explained that sexual relations within a family was not sinful. A prominent lay minister, she said her father explained that it was a fathers duty to have sex with his virgin daughter, citing a passage from the Bible. "I have yet to find it," George said.
Sharon George is her real name. Unlike many sexual assault victims, she did not want anonymity.
"Do you want to feel better about yourself?" she said. "Do you want to some day cry happy tears of relief? You have to break that silence. No matter how long it takes."
To tell or not to tell
Like so many victims of sexual assault, George was caught in the web of secrecy and disbelief that leaves victims experiencing a Catch-22. If they don't tell, the abuse continues. And often if they do, the repercussions can be too hard to bear.
Victims risk public humiliation, private scorn from friends and family members who do not, or can not afford to, believe the story; and if the assailant is an intimate, severing ties can lead to financial hardship.
For rape victims, the emotional trauma of the assault sometimes pales in comparison to the consequences of reporting it. For one thing, they probably know their attacker, making reporting the crime that much more difficult. Seventy-three percent of adult victims do know who their assailant is, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the country's largest anti-sexual assault organization. For juveniles, it's even worse. Ninety-three percent know their attacker, and 34 percent of the time, it's a family member.
"I have walked rape victims from the beginning to the end, and it is not an easy process," said Clema Lewis, co-director of the Women's Coalition of St. Croix, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending violence against women, men and children. "They dont want to go through the system; they dont want to talk to police, be in the newspaper, go to the hospital and be examined.
"Then youre interviewed by the patrol, then the detective, the prosecutor; and next youre in the courtroom where anybody can come in and hear you. Sometimes I can understand why they dont do it."
For child rape victims, it's especially traumatic. "You don't want to re-victimize this child, but you have to treat this child like an adult, to some extent, to get through the examination," said Sgt. Alva Chesterfield, a police supervisor of the Domestic Violence Unit on St. Thomas.
Since most child abuse victims know, even live with, their attackers, talking about the assault may not feel right. Children don't typically tell on parents or guardians. And, if the child is old enough to foresee the consequences, exposing the situation is not necessarily a good option.
"If I'm a child, why should I say my father raped me when I'm going to be pulled out of the house, and put in a foster home and no longer have my room, and be uprooted from my siblings and peers?" Lewis said.
When all is said and done, only six percent of rapists ever spend a day in jail, according to RAINN.
For an eight-year-old like Sharon George, jail wasn't the objective. Safety was. But how does a child abuse victim claim it?
Disbelief, shame and family honor
Dilsa Capdeville, the executive director of Kidscope, a St. Thomas agency dedicated to helping child abuse victims and their families, tells the story of a young St. Thomian who was beaten by his mother, later by his grandmother, and eventually when he turned to his father, he got thrown out of a second-story window. All because he went to each of them pleading for protection against his uncle, who was raping him. Capdeville said the uncle was prominent in law enforcement.
Regardless of age, victims of sexual assault are often not believed, or they're punished for speaking out. In some sexual assault cases, the victim is seen as having "asked" for it.
Alrick Brooks, program administrator for the Criminal Victims Compensation Commission in the Dept. of Human Services on St. Thomas, said no matter what clothes a victim was wearing, or how seductive the victim was acting, sexual assault is solely the province of the perpetrator.
"Because she is dressed provocative doesn't mean she's saying, 'Please come and rape me now,'" Brooks said.
For Sharon George, her abusive situation boiled down to a question of honor versus justice. Not only did she turn to her mother for help, but a family friend who was also her teacher suspected something was happening and approached the mother as well.
"You're not supposed to talk about these things," George said, explaining her mother's reaction. "You always hear about family shame. What happens in the house, stays in the house."
And so the cycle continues, said Clema Lewis. "That's what breeds incest — secrecy. It's like that with domestic violence as well. If you get beat, you don't take that to the coalition, you don't take that to the police. You deal with that here [at home], which means you don't deal with it at all."
A generational cycle?
The young boy who was assaulted by his parents and grandmother, according to Capdeville, grew up to become one of the most notorious child sexual offenders ever known in the territory. Capdeville said he eventually confessed to police that he assaulted between two to five boys a week on St. Thomas over a 15-year period.
"I'm not a mathematician," she continued, "but if you add up all those boys who didn't tell anyone, who never got help, there are a lot of pedophiles on this island doing the same thing."
That's because victims of sexual abuse — abuse meaning assaults spread over a period of time — often wind up as abusers themselves. The Womens Coalition said one-third of all victims become offenders.
In addition, victims often raise children who become victims.
"It's a generational thing," said Capdeville who has been working in the field of child abuse for more than 40 years. "It's not uncommon for me to deal with children who have had mothers and grandmothers, almost at the same age, who experienced child molestation."
Part of it, according to James Grayer of the Department of Human Services on St. Thomas, is — what is "normal?" Grayer, district manager of the office of Intake and Emergency Services, is among the first responders after police are called to investigate child abuse.
"You can walk in on a home that has maggots crawling on the floor and flies in and out, and you can see a child who is very happy," Graye
r said. "If you don't know anything else, if there's only one way of life you know, how can you draw a reference?"
Charlotte Poole Davis, the deputy attorney general on St. Croix who has specialized in prosecuting child abuse cases, agreed.
"I had one child, a special-needs child, and she had lived in this child abuse situation so long, it was the only life that she knew," said Davis. "When she was taken out of that home, she asked the social worker if the abuser could go with her."
Even when the home life is arguably "normal," what is it that constitutes normal for a woman? That's the question asked by Zarah Rose, an outreach worker for the Virgin Islands Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Council at the St. John Community Crisis Center.
"I think our society has, in a way, condoned domestic violence and sexual assault to a certain level against women because of the over-sexualization of women in music, radio, TV and movies," said Rose. "Even though our awareness may have changed, so have the challenges."
A good example of the challenges, according to Dilsa Capdeville, is the children's parade at Carnival. "The little girls walking up and down, gyrating," said Capdeville. "And the mamas dressing them in tight pants and thongs. And this is the children's parade!"
Love and money vs. emotional well-being
One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to help sexual abuse victims is their unwillingness or inability to help themselves.
"It can take seven to 10 times for the victim to go back to the abuser before she gets up and leaves," said Ninafe Giron, the victim's witness advocate for the police department on St. Croix.
Brooks, from the Criminal Victims Compensation Commission, said he knows of three females who refuse to report — at least in part, because of a warped sense of love.
"'Oh, he really loves me. He wasnt like this before,'" he said, quoting the victim.
Rose said it's hard to see women go back to their abuser. But men often hold the purse strings, she said, and money is power. As a professional, she has to be patient.
"Theres no normal recovery process," Rose said. "We do expect them to recover, and we do expect them to file the restraining order, and we're disappointed when they don't. But, we have to be very empathetic and compassionate to the fact that it may take that woman longer than it seems it should by society's standard."
Part Three: How the Territory is Battling Against Sexual Assault
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