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For Victims of Sexual Violence, the Judicial System Can Often Add to Trauma

Ryan Loew
90.5 WESA

With sexual violence can come a host of mental health issues — depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder to name a few. But dealing with the judicial system can also bring a slew of problems for victims.

The statistics are harrowing: One in four girls and one out of six boys will experience sexual violence before the age of 18. Figures are high for adults as well. Yet despite those numbers, less than half of those report the crime. Even when they do, very few of the accused see jail time. And societal attitudes, what happened in Penn State or Steubenville, Ohio, for example, can bring all kinds of distress.

Experts say one of the deterrents that keep victims from coming forward is a fear of the judicial system. And once they do come forward, navigating it can be a difficult and arduous process.

At least, that was the case for 23-year-old Britney Dukes.

"I have been in a court battle for the last almost three years now ... just court being postponed and hung juries," she said this past summer. "It’s been almost more difficult to go through the court process than it was to actually go through the abuse."

Dukes was sexually abused by her stepfather, Nathaniel Banks, from the time she was 11 until she left for college. Banks recently pleaded guilty to assault and other charges, but not before Dukes would experience  traumatic side-effects of the abuse, including self-destructive behavior and painful secrecy.

"I felt like it was my fault, like I had in some way triggered this or did something to make him feel the need to do that," Dukes said. "For years I just battled with hating myself, and I went through eating disorders and I used to be a cutter and I’ve just gone through a lot of mental things throughout this."

With sexual violence can come all kinds of mental health issues, said Alison Hall, director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, or PAAR. Every year PAAR sees 2,500 children and adults. Hall said the majority of the adults were victims of sexual violence who didn’t deal with the issue until later in life.

"They could’ve pushed it out of their head, had other coping skills," Hall said. "A lot of times in sexual violence trauma victims, it is common for victims to potentially abuse alcohol, abuse drugs, (develop) eating disorders, become work-a-holics, have persistent relationship problems, boundary issues. There is a reason they call it the most costly crime to society, because of all the mental health issues a victim can experience."

And in addition to mental health issues, there are legal issues. Hall said reliving and recounting trauma for police officers, lawyers, judges and juries can be grueling. She calls the judicial process exhaustive and unfriendly.

"The process is not a warm place, a lot of times it’s a he-said, she-said," Hall said. "Today’s jurors, they talk about the 'CSI effect,' and where is all this definitive proof, where is all the DNA and where is all of that, and sometimes that doesn’t always exist."

There is also a considerable amount of victim blaming that goes on.

"The assumption is that if something happened to you, of course you would report it to the police and of course you would go to court and of course that offender would be found guilty and face many, many years in prison," Hall said. "And that really is not the way it happens all the time."

According to numbers from the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the National Center for Policy Analysis, out of every 100 rapes, 46 get reported to police, 12 lead to an arrest, nine get prosecuted, five lead to a felony conviction and three will spend a day in prison.

Hall said although the courts in Allegheny County are progressive in some ways, there is a specialty court for sex offenders for example, those numbers still mirror reality here.

"We’ve actually had one counselor, an advocate who obviously goes to court with victims, and she has been here for quite a while, but it took three years before any of her clients … that she heard a guilty verdict in a courtroom," Hall said. "And this is somebody who probably has been in court every week."

After Dukes reported the abuse, she was led to the Center for Victims in East Liberty, which provides counseling to victims of violent crime.

"I was really scared to come to therapy for the first two months, and then my therapist actually called me and asked me to come down, and from that point on I’ve just been coming to see her," Dukes said. 

Dealing with her feelings there helped her deal with the years-long court process — and dealing with a childhood and adolescence marred by abuse and secrecy.

"A lot of kids my age were focused on what's going on with them in school and their friends and, you know, the normal teenage things, whereas my biggest concern was trying to get through the night without having something happen to me and be able to wake up and go to school the next day and have the energy to do all that while still staying up frightened all night worried that I’m going to be molested," she said. 

The therapists at the Center for Victims say that as much as they see victims of street violence, they also see victims of sexual violence. There is just more of a stigma in speaking about those types of crimes, and that stigma which can exacerbate trauma.

"The thing about being a victim of a crime is the level of powerlessness," said trauma therapist Mary Volkar. "And the thing is, the more powerlessness they had during a crime, the more likely they are to have trauma symptoms."

Dukes said therapy the Center for Victims also helped her deal with the years of legal waiting.  

Scott Berkowitz of RAINN, the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, said they don’t have statistics of how long sexual violence court cases typically last because laws and processes vary so much from state to state. But uniformly, he said, the system breaks down all along the way.

"At the front end of the process, because most cases are never reported, there is a missed opportunity for justice in those cases, and even once those cases are reported they are difficult to prosecute and even once those cases get prosecuted even successful prosecutions get pleaded down," Berkowitz said. "It’s interesting that the vast majority of convictions come as a result of plea bargains so trials are fairly rare."

That’s how Dukes’ case with her stepfather ended. In late September, after years of postponements and a mistrial, Banks pleaded guilty. A deal was worked out — a plea agreement — and he got five years probation for charges of indecent exposure, aggravated assault on someone under the age of 13 and endangering the welfare of a child. Her mother, in earlier court proceedings, was also found guilty of an endangering the welfare of children charge because she knew and didn’t do anything about the abuse. She was sentenced to probation.

Dukes is content with the resolution and is moving on with her life. She has a job she likes and is planning an upcoming wedding. Mostly, though, she is happy that in some way, her stepfather acknowledged his guilt.

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