Hearings Reveal Little Aid for Rape Victims

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Little solace or assistance is available to victims of sexual violence in New York City, recent expert testimony before the City Council revealed. In fact, the witnesses painted a portrait of a scattershot approach that may leave thousands of women each year without assistance.

“Unfortunately New York does not lead in sexual violence programming,” said Ronnie Eldridge, chair of the City Council’s committee on women’s issues. “I think we’re not a good standard to judge other places by.”

The hearings last Thursday were scheduled before the Central Park rampage after the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. More than 50 women complained of being doused with ice water, forcibly stripped, grabbed and robbed. To date, 25 men have been accused of sexual abuse.

Senate Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a pre-hearing news conference, urged Congress to reauthorize the federal Violence Against Women Act before it adjourns for summer. She then continued on with her campaign schedule, television crews in tow.

Aides said she hoped the interest in the Central Park rampage would also draw attention to the need for renewed federal legislation that provides funds to states for programs to prevent sexual violence and enhance prosecution of sex crimes.

More than 2000 rapes were reported to city police in 1998, the last year for which data is available. Experts estimate that only 16 percent of rapes are reported to law enforcement officials. Moreover, 29 percent of forcible rape victims are under the age of 11 when the crime occurs.

At the hearing, medical and legal professionals and women’s advocates provided vivid documentation of a fragmented system in which only the luckiest victims receive the services that all of them need. Although this is just one city, some believe that the situation here is replicated in many others throughout the nation.

Harriet Lessel, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, summarized the city’s care when she described how difficult it was for rape victim to even find programs to assist them.

“While there are two good hotlines, their numbers are not readily available or accessible,” she said. “You cannot look in the phone book under Rape and find these numbers.”

She added that many community-based social service programs remain unaware of training and educational opportunities available for staff and clients.

Other speakers included a physician trained to provide specialized care to rape victims, a district attorney trained to prosecute sexual assault cases without humiliating the victim further, a hospital counselor trained to support rape victims and a volunteer willing to lend an ear and provide a hand to hold.

Dr. Pat Carey, a physician who also works as a sexual assault forensic examiner in a major hospital in Manhattan, emphasized that New York’s emergency room doctors lack time and training to properly care for rape victims. “The physician [on duty] could be an ophthalmology resident rotating through the emergency department of a teaching hospital,” she said, adding that only four of the 40 Manhattan hospitals have physicians trained to treat rape victims.

Sexual assault examiners, on the other hand, know how to use new technology to collect evidence. They are also trained to supply the survivor with much needed psychological care and treatment options.

A busy emergency department physician may be reluctant to treat a rape victim because doing it properly takes much more time than the average patient and the physician “dreads” being called to testify, she added.

Marjory Fisher, a district attorney for a special victims bureau in Queens County, emphasized the need for specialized legal help. Her program assigns one attorney to handle the case from the time of the assault, throughout the legal process.

“One important benefit is that the victim will not have to repeat the details of the crime over and over to a succession of attorneys,” she said.

Those who do receive excellent legal help may still be out of luck when it comes to counseling, because rape crisis programs lack sufficient staff.

Fisher said that during the first six months of this year, her office referred almost 50 sexual assault victims in need of counseling to outside agencies and while close to 500 people in Queens reported to police that they had been raped last year, less than half that number had access to a counselor, she said.

“If we are to encourage victims of sexual assault to report the crime committed against them and to go forward with the prosecution of their rapists, we must provide them with immediate access to free, professional, conveniently located counseling and support services,” she added.

Alice Robinson testified that language is a barrier for survivors needing assistance. Robinson coordinates intervention programs for sexual assault victims in an area so diverse that all 22 Indian dialects are spoken there. Even so, her limited staff can’t even adequately serve people who speak Spanish–a language more common than English in many parts of the city.

Robinson’s program often sends Spanish-speaking victims to counselors who are not trained to offer the kind of therapy they need or to agencies that charge them for the service, she said, which the victims are unable to pay.

English speaking victims often forgo treatment too, because they lack convenient transportation. The only hospital-based rape crisis program in Queens, based at Mount Sinai Medical Center, serves all of the Bronx and Staten Island as well, areas that are more than an hour-and-half away, via public transportation.

“Many of our clients travel long distances, taking buses and trains, to reach our counseling sites,” Robinson said, “and those are the ones who manage to find us.”

City council member Eldridge said while acknowledging the city’s shortcomings added that that she is hopeful that the media attention surrounding the Central Park assaults will raise awareness around the country.

“Certainly the need has always been acute,” she said in an interview, “but now maybe people are listening more.”

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