Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The questions matter, not just the answers.

Last week, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze started a firestorm with a skit meant to undermine the statistics used to justify tighter scrutiny of the way college campuses respond to sexual assault of students. Bloomberg Businessweek does a good job of putting the statistics into context in their article linked here. (The link also includes the video of the skit if you care to watch it.) I would argue that the bigger point, however, is not about parsing out the statistics. Rather, the questions that they asked are most informative.

Granted, the questions seem like researchers are taking a circuitous route to their final numbers, and that leads to the show's criticism. The studies asked about specific behavior or situations often without using the term "rape" or "sexual abuse." The host of the segment declares that if he were to study the percentage of women who were raped, he would ask them "Have you been raped?" The more direct the approach the better the answers, right? Apparently it does not occur to him that some women may choose not to identify themselves as rape victims to a man they do not know, especially one who asks in such blunt, careless language. Maybe he should be asking why researchers feel they have to explicitly state different sexual assault and sexual coercion situations to elicit responses rather than just asking the simple question. Therein lies the lesson.

Researchers have learned that victims of sexual violence do not always identify as "rape victims" or "sexual assault victims" even if their experience meets the legal definition. There are different explanations for this phenomenon. One of the most troubling ones that has surfaced in research is that some of these abusive behaviors are normalized by society in a way that victims no longer identify as victims of sexual violence. This is not a matter of "The president is saying the women were raped and these women are saying they weren’t" as The Blaze host opines. It is at least in part about what our culture tells even the youngest women about their body and how men will treat or mistreat them.

In a study published in Gender & Society, researchers found that child victims routinely trivialized, minimized, or justified sexual harassment and sexual abuse committed against them. Sexually aggressive boys who touched girls without their consent or used sexually explicit language to proposition the girls were understood as "boys being boys." Even adult men who pursued sexual contact with underage girls were sometime given this pass by the victims.

One 14 year old in the study relayed a story about a boy on her school bus who repeatedly touched her over her protests. He ultimately told her that he planned to come to her house and rape her since she was not acquiescing to his sexual overtures. This girl repeated dismissed the threats and aggression as the boy "feeling rejected" or "just joking." She did not identify as a victim of sexual abuse or sexually aggressive behavior.

Like the women in the studies that The Blaze skewers, the children in this study did not always report the abuse to authority figures because they didn't believe it was serious enough to warrant reporting.  These are young girls being forcibly touched against their will. Boys (and sometimes men) are touching their bodies without their consent and the girls don't consider it serious enough to report. They change their own behavior by trying to avoid the situation or the boy or by trying to divert his attention, but they do not identify the males' behavior as abusive. The girls' own behavior belies their discomfort with the situation, but they do not express that in terms of sexual abuse.

It's not just the boys who normalize this behavior. Mothers tell their daughters to expect sexual aggression and to protect themselves. After being forced to perform oral sex on a 17 year old boy, Terri (age 11) took the blame on herself saying, "I shouldn't have been there, my mom said I should've been home anyway, but I didn't want to get raped so I had to." This girl was forced, under threat of forced vaginal intercourse, to perform oral sex against her will. Still, she does not identify as a rape or sexual assault victim.

Another 14 year old girl reported that a 30-something year old man touched her leg, thigh, breasts, and vagina. When asked to reflect on the encounter later, she said, "He does it to everyone, you know, it's just happens sometimes." Other girls reported being given alcohol to facilitate sexual abuse, repeatedly being propositioned by adults who had already sexually abused their peers, and being shamed or threatened with shaming for their sexual behavior. Still, some of the girls criticized themselves and their peers for not successfully avoiding the abuse and normalized the males' behavior as just part of the way things are.

Get that? Women and girls can be subjected to aggressive sexual behavior, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and rape without necessarily identifying themselves as rape victims. It's not always the case, but it does happen. It does not mean that they are not victims, it just means that we have to be smarter and more delicate in the way we ask the questions. It is the nuanced questions, like in the studies lambasted by The Blaze that elicit descriptions of those victimizations. Until we can change our culture which tells women to expect, normalize, and take responsibility for the violence committed against them by males, the least we can do is ask the right questions to let them tell their stories.

Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Faces

I feel like someone is looking over my shoulder. Not in the “NSA is reading my emails” kind of way. Rather, when I look to my left, I see three handsome smiling faces- pictures of people I have never met.

Probably the most consistent fear I hear from my clients is not that someone else in their family will be hurt. It’s not that the perpetrator will never be brought to justice. The most common fear I hear from my clients is that no one will remember their son or daughter, their brother or sister, their mother or father.

It’s a realistic fear in a city and in a culture where most crime stories last for one news cycle before they are replaced by newer ones. Certainly, some stories capture the attention of the public or the media, but those are the exception. Sometimes it is because the victim was especially young. Sometimes it’s because the victim doesn’t fit this city’s stereotype of what a homicide victim looks like. Sometimes it is because the crime happened in a part of the city that most people consider “safe.” The media reminds us of these cases, but not of the rest.

For the majority of the cases, by the time the funeral is held, there are no cameras or reporters there. There is just a family that has been left behind. There are young friends who have to wrestle with the reality of their own mortality much too early. There are ministers, police officers, and advocates who have dedicated themselves to helping to pick up the pieces and to help those families to find justice, renewed meaning, and happiness, but there is no media. They have moved on to the latest story.

Out of the 120 homicides in St. Louis City last year, could you name 5 victims? How about 2? If you were not related to the victim or you don’t work in victim services, that’s probably a difficult task. It seems like the fear of families that their loved ones who were taken too soon will be forgotten is a realistic concern.

That is what brings me back to the three gentlemen over my shoulder. These three boys were killed to early, all before their 21st birthday. They are three victims whose families have chosen to add their portraits to an exhibit called the Faces Project which was started by local artist Christine Ilewski. The Faces Project gives families a way to ensure that the memory of their loved one goes on. The faces and the stories will be preserved in this traveling exhibit, and they will be seen and read far beyond where the family alone could take them. They will testify to the toll that gun crime takes on young victims. 


I will remember these happy faces. I will remember the grief of their families, but I will also remember the hope that we have been able to give them through a partnership of advocacy and art.

I invite you to come and to see the faces at this month’s showing of the Faces Project. 

May 9- June 6, 2014
Opening reception May 9 from 7-10pm
2028 South 12th Street
St. Louis, MO  63104

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Special Victims Advocate

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why does hate matter?

In the wake of events like Sunday's shootings in Overland Park, KS, people often ask what is so different about a hate crime. Conventional logic tells us that in order to violently victimize someone, you would have to at least dislike if not hate that person. Still, the law distinguishes between “regular” crimes and “hate” crimes. Why?

Part of the insidious nature of hate crimes is that they are not just committed against one person. Rather than targeting a person for some perceived wrong he/she committed, the suspect in a hate crime targets a person simply because they are a member of a certain group (or believed to be a member of that group). It is a crime against an entire community of people based solely on a characteristics that are largely outside of their control like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion. Because hate crimes are perceived as attacks on entire groups, there is elevated risk of retaliation and escalating violence.

There are two very important lessons to take away from the tragic crimes in Kansas. The first is that a victim need not belong to a minority group to be the victim of a hate crime. What matters for the purposes of hate crimes charges is that they were targeted because the perpetrator believed they belonged to a certain group. In this case, the victims were chosen because of their suspected affiliation with two Jewish institutions. While all three were Christian, according to media reports, that is not the important factor in the decision to charge the alleged perpetrator with a hate crime.

What matters for hate crime charges is whether victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership in a particular group. It does not matter whether that group is a minority or a majority in our society. The same charges could be leveled against a perpetrator who shot people outside of a mosque or outside of a Christian church because he/she believed the victims were members of that religion. Members of majority or minority groups may be victims of hate crimes.

Perhaps the more important takeaway from this crime is that hate crimes legislation does not criminalize speech. It only increases the punishment for criminal acts. One of the reasons given for opposing hate crimes legislation is that such laws punish people for exercising their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech. According to news sources, the suspect in the recent case had a history racist, anti-Semitic speech documented through letters, campaign ads, and over 12,000 internet postings on one site alone. None of those were charged as hate crimes. They were not hate crimes. In order for someone to be charged with a hate crime, they must commit a criminal act. Hate crimes legislation does not impinge on individuals’ freedom of speech. The suspect was only arrested on hate crimes charges once he resorted to violence, a criminal act. Speech is not a hate crime unless the person commits or incites violent, criminal acts.

Hate crime prosecutions are not about controlling the exercise of free speech. They are not just committed against "the others" in society. They are about increasing penalties for individuals who commit a crime against a person or group for what they are, not who they are. Hate matters because it preys on fear, misinformation, and anger to incite violence. Hate matters because it breaks the bonds that hold us together as a city, a state, and a country. Hate matters because crimes against individuals based on their membership in a group depersonalize victims and alienate entire communities from the larger society.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services 

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Knight, A Captain, and A Role Model

Sir Patrick Stewart is not just the man behind Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the Startship Enterprise. He is a voiceover artist, a Shakespearean actor, and a survivor of domestic violence. At (of all places) Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas, a brave woman- herself a victim of abuse- thanked him for his work on behalf of ending violence against women and asked "Besides acting, what are you most proud of that you have done in you life (that you are willing to share with us)?” His answer stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to share it. He is eloquent, steadfast, and above all genuine. At the end of the video, Sir Patrick Stewart hugged the woman who asked the question and whispered to her "You never have to go through that again. You're safe now."

Sir Patrick Stewart has a spotlight because he is famous. He has chosen to expose a painful part of his life to that glaring light and to use it to help others. His sentiment that men must be responsible for ending violence against women is one that any and all men should adopt. You do not have to be famous. You do not have to have a history of being abused. You just have to be a man who will no longer tolerate violence against women, who will no longer blame the victims of abuse, and who will not be ashamed to say so. Men can guarantee that women never have to go through abuse again. Men can make sure that women are safe now and in the future.
Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words, but are all pictures worth publishing?

Crime Victim Advocacy Center staff members are teaching 60 continuing education sessions for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Besides teaching the officers how to communicate with victims of trauma and grief, we (hopefully) teach them some ways to deal with their own trauma- the trauma that comes from seeing what they see and hearing what they hear on a daily basis. It’s the proverbial “put on your oxygen mask before trying to help the child next to you” approach to mental health. If you’re burnt out, it’s only going to make your job harder. One of the coping mechanisms we offer is to avoid traumatic material like books, movies, or news after you’ve had a particularly bad day, week, or month. The same suggestion holds true for other trauma workers, including the staff at CVAC. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I have been feeling a little “toasty” around the edges. Not burnt out, but definitely moving in that direction. With the police training still fresh in my mind, I took great pains to avoid the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. I knew there were graphic images out there. A coworker said she had seen a picture of someone who had lost a limb and all other sorts of injuries. That was the type of traumatic material I knew I should avoid. Practice what you preach.

Then, in the midst of my Facebook newsfeed this morning, among a host of messages supporting the victims of the bombing, I saw a picture of a man in a wheelchair with a tourniquet around his thigh. The photo also showed rest of his amputated limb including the exposed bone and shredded muscle. My first thought was to immediately unfriend the person who posted it, which I did. My second thought was to question why someone would post that on Facebook. Then, a bigger issue came to mind. Why is that image out there to be posted on Facebook?

It did not look like a photo taken on a smartphone. It looked like a professional photograph. With a quick Google search, I found it on a number of reputable news sources. Many of the websites had cropped the image to avoid showing the gory remnants of the victim’s limb, but others had not. One website blurred the man’s face for his privacy, but still showed the rest of the graphic image. The same online photo galleries where I found the original shot showed victims lying in the midst of a blood-splattered sidewalk just minutes after the bombing occurred and other blood-spattered, screaming victims on gurneys.

I understand that when there is a tragedy like the bombing yesterday, people crave information. News sources want to get out as much content as possible, especially if the public's safety might be in jeopardy. I understand that a picture is worth a thousand words. I also understand that each bloody person you see in a news photo is a victim who has family and friends that will likely see those pictures. Those images may have reached them before word from their loved one. Those images may be the last ones that some families have of their children or brothers or sisters. Not to mention the toll that those graphic images take on the general public.

I do not want to regulate the press. The free press is one of the cornerstones of our free speech. Free speech, however, does not mean printing or distributing everything that crosses a news desk. I would ask the press to be more thoughtful in what they are posting. When something is on the internet, it is there forever regardless of whether it is later removed from a website or censored by some sources. Those images are permanent. Decisions like whether to post graphic material have permanent consequences for the people who have already been victimized or those who are simply bystanders to the tragedy. Those consequences may not be seen by the media, but they will doubtless be felt by those who have already been put through so much pain.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

And I think to myself...

Thinking of the faces is not something that I regularly do. It is a luxury that I cannot afford to myself. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the victims. It’s just self-preservation. I have always been afraid of being crushed under the weight of all the pain and loss.

When I started my college internship at CVAC in 2002, the second case I opened was with the mother of a homicide victim. I still remember the victim's name, but I never saw his face. Since then, I have worked with hundreds of families of homicide victims. I have seen some of the faces on t-shirts their families wear or on funeral programs families bring to our office, but it’s always in passing. I know the names. I see them over and over in case notes and in the list of names I assemble for our annual homicide victims’ vigil. I don’t know their faces.

Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes God smiles on us. Sometimes karma brings us good things. Sometimes there are coincidences that turn out for the best. However you want to attribute it, you know what I mean. And so it went with CVAC’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week event this year. Victims’ Rights Week was coming up. An artist was looking for pictures of young victims of gun violence. A gallery just a couple blocks from the CVAC office gives space to artists free of charge.  It turns out that the artist’s schedule, the gallery’s availability, and Victims’ Rights Week all coincided, so we scheduled the exhibit and an opening reception.

For the “Faces Project,” Christine Ilewski paints watercolor portraits of young victims of gun violence, donates the original to the family, and collages reproductions of the portraits onto vintage handkerchiefs. These images make up a traveling exhibit with a mission to raise awareness of the toll gun violence takes on American youth. So, with the help of coworkers and interns, I narrowed down our clients according to the artist’s guidelines (victims under 20 years of age and killed by a gun) and sent them an invitation to participate along with an envelope for them to return the release form and a photograph of their loved one.

A few responses arrived in the mail. I did not open them. I told myself it was just to keep them from getting lost. If I’m being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the faces.  Finally, one showed up with a handwritten note on the outside of the envelope that read “Last picture he took! Thank you.” My curiosity got the best of me and I opened the envelope. Seeing the picture nearly brought me to tears (which my coworkers could tell you is a rare occurrence). Then one arrived with a familiar return address, so I opened that one, too. Same result. Finally, I decided to open the rest. I found not only pictures, but also notes about the victims. Even in the midst of their grief, the families found happiness in this project and in telling their loved one's story.

Then it hit me, the tears I was holding back were not tears of sadness. Instead, I was in awe of how much this project meant to people and of the very small part that I could play in making it happen. I was in awe of how these families let us into their lives at the worst time and how much trust they place in us. Rather than crushing me under their weight, the faces buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I tell people where I work, they either tell me a story of their own victimization, they try to get away from me as quickly as possible, or they tell me how sad or hard my job must be. It’s true, although I don’t let myself think about that. Just like I don’t let myself dwell on the faces. Somehow, though, I am sitting at my desk and listening to Louie Armstrong sing “What a Wonderful World” and thinking that it couldn’t be truer. It’s a cruel world. It’s a difficult world. It’s a sad world. It is also a wonderful world. And sometimes there is wonder in the midst of the sadness. It is with that revelation in mind that I invite you to come see the faces.

Friday, April 19, 2013
5pm-7pm 
3701 Grandel
St. Louis, MO  63103

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Monday, April 1, 2013

Taking stock of our resources

Today, several media outlets circulated news about a push to establish a National Compassion Fund for victims of mass shootings. Families of some of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks and of several highly publicized mass-shooting events have created a petition on the White House’s petition page to collect funds and to give them directly to the victims’ families. Since most people do not think about victim services until they need it or until it is in the news, this petition provides a perfect opportunity to explore the resources that St. Louis has to offer in the case of a local mass-shooting attack.

Need: Funeral & Medical Expenses
Services: Mo CVC can provide up to $5000 in reimbursement for funeral expenses and up to $25,000 in medical expenses, lost wages, and/or loss of support for children.

Need: Counseling for Adults
Services: Free trauma-specific counseling for anyone age 10 and up

Need: Counseling for Children
Resource: Family Resource Center, Annie’s Hope, and others

Need: Spiritual Support
Services: A volunteer minister is paired with grieving families to provide sensitivity and support to the families of homicide victims, to rebuild and strengthen relationships between the Police Department and the community and to reduce the likelihood of retaliation

Need: Group Counseling
Resource: NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance) Gateway Crisis Response Team
Services: CRT responds to crises in the workplace, neighborhoods, organizations and corporations with group crisis intervention and companioning.

This list is by no means exhaustive of all possible needs, but it also does not cover all of the available services. Listing all of the resources available would far exceed the limits of this blog and the limits of its readers' attention spans. While we cannot provide direct funds to victims like a National Compassion Fund, victim advocates at CVAC will assess what needs a family has and will do their best to find a resource to meet those needs. You can reach CVAC at our hotline 314-652-3623.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services