By Alison Bowen
Monday, March 24, 2008
A Web site gives abuse victims a place to report their experiences anonymously and encourages them to make an official report. Filmmaker Angela Shelton leads the effort and plans to report her own abuse on April 29 in Asheville, N.C.
(WOMENSENEWS)--On April 29, a day that the mayor of Asheville, N.C., has declared "Angela Shelton Day," the filmmaker and actress will report her father's abuse of her as a child online and to police.
Shelton, who is also a major voice in convincing victims to open up about their experiences, will do so as part of a nationwide campaign started last month to launch Report IT, a Web site designed to enable victims of abuse to report their stories anonymously and encourage them to report to authorities.
Rallies are also planned at Barnes and Nobles bookstores nationwide on April 1 calling for women to report being sexually assaulted and coinciding with the release of her autobiography, "Finding Angela Shelton," published by Meredith Books.
Shelton--in partnership with a Chicago group called PAVE: Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment--launched Reportitnow.org at victims' rights rallies in about 30 cities last month timed to the opening of a retrial for the case of Tory Bowen, who was banned from using the word "rape" in a Nebraska trial.
Bowen pressed charges against her alleged rapist but when she testified at his trial, the judge would not allow her to use the word, instructing her even to describe a sexual assault nurse examiner as a "sexual examiner."
April 29 has also been designated by Shelton and PAVE as a day for others to show up at courthouses across the country and report abuse to the authorities. The Web site provides victims with a sample form for a report.
The forms ask the type of abuse, whether the offender is known, whether it was reported, to whom, the reaction and the outcome. The site makes it clear that submitting the online form is anonymous and only the amount of people reporting will be publicly released. Visitors to the Reportitnow.org Web site can donate $50 for a rally toolkit, which includes press releases, photos and step-by-step tips on staging events.
Shelton wants to involve everyone ever affected by sexual assault, which, she says, is everyone.
"We should no longer remain silent, because your story is no longer your story," Shelton says. "It's everyone's story."
Angela Rose agrees. "People don't realize that literally every single person in America knows a sexual assault survivor," says Rose, the director of PAVE. "It's so profound, the silence that allows this to continue."
The U.S. Department of Justice 2005 Victimization Survey reported that rapes declined from 1.4 per 1,000 people in 1994 to 0.5 per 1,000 in 2005. Among all violent crimes, 51 percent were unreported in 2004-2005 compared to 58 percent in 1994-1995. Many advocates question these statistics, saying they have not noticed a drop in requests for assistance.
Shelton is best known for her 1999 screenplay "Tumbleweeds," based on her nomadic life with a mother who moved with each new boyfriend. She later pitched a lighthearted idea to HBO on traveling around and getting all the Angela Sheltons she could find together, perhaps in Las Vegas, to unite under a shared name.
When she interviewed 40 other Angela Sheltons she found that 70 percent had been physically, sexually or emotionally abused.
HBO eventually canceled her project, but after calling other Angelas around the nation, she pressed on with a documentary that shaped itself into "Searching for Angela Shelton," a 2001 film about their abuse stories.
The discovery of widespread abuse didn't really surprise Shelton, who was raped as a teen by a stranger and repeatedly abused by her father.
What did stun her was that not one of the women she interviewed had reported the abuse.
As it turns out, neither had she.
Acknowledging abuse can be a step toward recovery.
"It really helped my healing process to be able to speak out," said Rose, who began PAVE after she was kidnapped and raped at gunpoint when she was 17. She escaped and went to the police, who she said re-victimized her by accusing her of lying. Her assailant, once paroled, is now serving a life sentence in prison.
Shelton says the reluctance to report is tied to fear. "It's pretty much all the same reason. Fear of not being believed, fear of coming forward, fear of being ridiculed or looking dirty . . . a different kind of scarlet letter."
Especially for male victims, she says. "It's the same issue but turned up much higher."
The first step toward reporting abuse, says Joan Zorza, a board member of End Violence Against Women International, based in Addy, Wash., is acknowledging it.
Children, for example, she said, "know they don't like it, but they certainly don't know that they could theoretically go and complain to somebody."
Similarly, women might accept abuse as part of the culture, or others might not report a rape for fear of angering their husbands. Internationally, the problem is often exacerbated by limited access to resources for victims, she said.
Shelton met Rose after hearing her speak about her experience in Los Angeles. Over coffee, they discovered a shared intensity to help victims realize the power of reporting abuse.
"As far as we know, this type of initiative has never been done before," Rose said.
Many victims can be discouraged from reporting abuse to authorities by statutes of limitation that say a crime must be reported within a set time period, Shelton noted. There are also cases where victims believe they can't produce evidence--Shelton doesn't know who raped her at 15--or that reporting comes with the fear of retaliation from abusers still in their lives or not yet in jail.
Most heavily trafficked Web sites for abuse victims focus on providing resources such as directing users to hotlines and programs, instead of tackling the legal and criminal aspects of abuse.
Even if Shelton's Web site can't offer legal recourse, it can provide an outlet.
"If you don't have the full information, or if your statute of limitations is up, if you want to be anonymous, report it online," Shelton said. "If you keep it in, it's so much harder to heal."
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women's eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
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