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Guest Opinion

Child abuse. Sex assault.

Hear about it in the news enough and the reality of it can lose its punch. Who wants to think about it, to go to that ugly place?

If you venture past the stats you have to think about the people.

That is scary.

If you consider those statistics, you know that a child was abused every few minutes in Oregon last year and that more than 15,000 women and men were forcibly raped.

In addition, more than 15,000 children and adolescents are victimized by rape each year in this state. Only 2 percent of those who stand accused of rape in a courtroom are convicted.

That's why thinking past the numbers can be overwhelming - because it seems so insurmountable, so huge.

If you think about child abuse and rape in terms of Karen or John, of the neighbor child, of that little girl in the grocery store, well, that can be too close to home.

The fact is, child abuse and sex assault are very scary crimes to think about. The helplessness. The hopelessness. The anger. The damage.

Imagine how the victims feel.

That's all we can do, imagine. Until the victims graduate into "survivors" and go on to share their stories or become advocates, the stage is pretty silent.

The cries are there, uttered from the gut and often into a silence unbroken, with only the ears of the tormentor to hear, to laugh.

Our attorney general is asking us to hear, and to listen. Hardy Myers' April 2002 task force report on sex assault, the first ever of its kind in Oregon, outlines the weaknesses in our system, from the fact that many counties aren't as lucky as ours and don't have a sex assault advocacy group to the fact that there is no formal training for emergency room physicians and nurses who work with rape victims directly after the attack.

One of the most telling aspects is the number one reason why so many victims don't report rape to the police: fear.

The task force came to the conclusion that while it's vital that we keep organizations like Polk County's Sable House strong, there is also much to be done at the other end, in identifying, convicting, treating and tracking the perpetrators.

Funding the state police crime lab's ability to perform DNA testing is the number one recommendation. The fact that we have this powerful tool in our hands but rapists are walking among us because we can't afford to use it is ridiculous. We can't afford not to fund it. We need to convict the rapists and ensure that the innocent are not convicted.

The force also recommends that every victim should have their case investigated by police and prosecutors who have received specialized training in the area of sexual assault. Among many other recommendations, there's one that really jumped out at me. They urge funding for forensic exams. That's right, in many communities the rape victim must pay for the rape exam.

It's a thick report, but the thrust of it to me was the plea that we, as residents of the state of Oregon and of the human community, make preventing and prosecuting sexual assaults a priority. The message to rapists is that it's no big deal. If rape numbers are going to change, our tolerance of it must change. Everyone is touched by viciousness of sexual assault. You may not realize it, but someone you know has been victimized by it.

But rape, like child abuse, isn't something we like to talk about. After all, the children are the vulnerable ones, the little people we are all charged with looking out for, with nurturing and protecting on their path to adulthood. But somehow along the way a lot of people got the idea that children aren't out to us on loan.

They're property.

With property rights is the option to use sadistic force for whatever reason suits the owners. Just like the slaves were treated in this country. In fact, the grim stories these children carry rival those of the slaves of the 1800s.

I know an "awareness month" isn't going to reach child abusers. Or that rapists are going to stop their attacks because it's sexual assault awareness month. Or that this column will make any difference to those people. They aren't reading it.

But I do know this: there are countless people in Polk County who quietly do what they can to change those statistics or at least to soften their effects. Some, like the staff and volunteers at Sable House are in the business of reaching out to the abused, of providing a safe place for the refugees. They also are educating young people in an effort to prevent abuse a decade away. They rush to the hospital at 2 a.m. to hold the hand of a rape victim while she endures the rape exam and the questions. Still others, the counselors, the friends, the bosses, teachers_they offer an open door for the young people in their lives, offering sincere interest and a promise to listen. There are neighbors who pick up the phone and make the call. There are strangers who don't laugh when the rape joke is made and don't look the other way when the bruises don't add up. There are those who advocate for abused and neglected children in our local courtrooms, the CASAs. There are those who send a donation to an organization that's doing advocacy, education or crisis work - or all three. There are so many more.

They don't need an awareness month. They know.

So if any message has gotten through to anyone this April from the articles and the billboards and the commercials and whatever, I hope it's been those directed to the victims and the survivors. That's why I'm sending this message of mine out through this newspaper. It's hard to get a message through to you. There's a reason why rape and child abuse are so underreported, and you know the reasons why. If you're afraid to go to the police, afraid to tell anyone about what's happened, ashamed and confused, what can you do?

Look around, find those safe places and people. They're here.

If you're a victim of sex assault, in Polk County you have SABLE House. The people you would talk to there can give you real help. If you're a young person being abused, go to your school counselor, school resource officer, to a trusted adult or call SABLE House.

Above all else, don't be isolated. Reach out for the help. It's here.

This month I'd like you to go beyond an awareness of child abuse and sexual assault and take a moment to think about what Sable House means to those without a voice, to the refugees from our own neighborhoods too small, too terrified, too traumatized to speak. Sable House isn't solely about domestic violence. Did you know that our state Legislature has recognized that committing domestic violence in the presence of a child is child abuse? They made it a felony.

How many of you know first-hand why that is?

If you'd like to join Sable House in its effort to educate, prevent, provide options, support and advocacy, consider checking out the hotline and advocacy training that's going to get started next week, on April 29. Call 503-623-6703 to find out more. Or when you notice a fundraiser for Sable House, consider supporting its efforts that way if you haven't before. If you're already a supporter, know that your dollars are being stretched beyond belief.

In these days of limited resources, Sable House needs every friend it can get to make sure someone is always there, at the other end of the line. What if they weren't?

Now that is scary.

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