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In Rural WV, Sexual Assault Victims Face Unique Hurdles

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Each Thursday in Fayette County, West Virginia, Twanna Warner-Burton stands before a group of people gathered by WorkForce West Virginia, the state agency managing unemployment. But she’s not there to talk about jobs. As a rural advocate for sexual violence victims, Warner-Burton focuses on introducing herself to the group  and handing out brochures detailing the resources available to victims of rape and sexual assault in this rural community.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped during their lives. In West Virginia, those numbers are one in six women and one in 21 men, according to a 2008 West Virginia Health Statistics Center report. Specific to West Virginia are the roadblocks and fears that can accompany reporting sexual violence in rural communities.

Warner-Burton is part of the state’s Rural Advocate Network, a group specially trained in assisting sexual violence victims in rural areas with everything from undergoing forensic exams to bringing rape cases to court. A large part of her job involves addressing the issues that can stand between a victim and his or her willingness to report the incident.

“As far as what I do, I’m pretty much there for the victim from start to finish,” she said.

While sexual assault survivors across the country face reporting challenges, including victim blaming and sometimes skeptical law enforcement questioning their claims, Nancy Hoffman of the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, or WV FRIS, said victims in rural areas have an additional set of roadblocks to contend with.

In West Virginia, 38 percent of the population lives in rural communities, countryside areas dotted with small towns where everybody knows one another. Victims know not just the perpetrator of sexual violence, but their family and friends, too. And the rest of the community likely knows them both — law enforcement included.

“If they know you as the victim, chances are good that they know the perpetrator,” said Hoffman. “That becomes a factor in making the decision, ‘Do I want to report or get help here?’”

Victims wanting to keep the assault private face difficulty in finding a police department or hospital nearby in which they are unknown. This lack of anonymity deters victims from seeking both legal and medical help.

“You’re going to know somebody at the hospital if you go to get a rape kit,” said Warner-Burton. “If you’re going to get a protective order, you’re probably going to know the magistrate. The magistrate is going to know the (accused).”

Even the simple act of visiting the police station to report sexual violence can open the victim to scrutiny. In a small community, residents driving by might recognize the car parked outside the station. And when everyone knows everyone, residents can have difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of their neighbors committing sexual crimes.

“There’s very much a resistance to wanting to acknowledge that sexual violence occurs in the community, because that means people that you know, that you love, that you see every single day are committing sexual violence,” said Johnanna Ganz, the Rural Projects Coordinator at the Sexual Violence Justice Institute in Minnesota, which conducts trainings in West Virginia.

While small, close-knit communities can offer a lot of good, they can make victims think twice before taking action.

Additionally, since both parties’ family and friends are familiar to one another, victims in rural areas often fear retaliation for speaking up about sexual assault.

Hoffman said victims question what kind of position making a report will put them and their families in, especially if the perpetrator is powerful or has prominent friends and family in town.

“The retaliation can be direct threats to the family,” Hoffman said. “Itf could impact [(the victim)] getting a job in the community, particularly if the offender is someone who’s well-known or well-liked.”

Outside of these fears, victims are often unsure of where they can find a specialized sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, for a forensic exam, especially if their community doesn’t have a hospital. Distance to athe nearest hospital, minimal cellular service and bad weather impedingstymieing travel on country roads can all compound this problem.

Hoffman said even if survivors overcome these challenges, they face a criminal justice system that is often unresponsive to sexual violence cases, leaving them to wonder whether it is in their best interest to report the crimes against them at all.

However, women like Hoffman and Warner-Burton focus on the solutions, of which they are many in West Virginia.

“Some of the most creative work I’ve seen … comes out of rural communities,” said Ganz.

For example, the Rural Advocate Network Warner-Burton is a part of began in 2007, serving seven rural counties throughout the state. The advocates meet quarterly, but Warner-Burton said they have 24/7 access to WV FRIS resources. They act as advocates and educators in the community, not just helping victims once sexual violence has occurred, but leading prevention programs, as well. An advocate might partner with a police officer onfor a high school assembly discussing sexual assault and rape before prom. 

The advocates create relationships with everyone from police officers, to judges, to nurses, to guidance counselors, to Head Start program leaders. Warner-Burton said based on theose relationships she has cultivated over the years, first responders and medical personnel in the community know to call her when they encounter a rape victim.

These advocates formare part of a broader sexual assault response team (SART) in the community, made up of law enforcement, nurses, detectives, and other stakeholders victims interact with during the reporting and investigating process.

Warner-Burton’s SART team encompasses 10 individuals.

“My team, we are very close,” she said. “Your whole main goal is to keep this team strong.”

FRIS invests significant effort in training these teams and other first responders through in-person trainings and online trainings.

“We are spending a heck of a lot of time training first responders and encouraging collaboration,” Hoffman said. “So they develop and share that victim-centered approach.”

Recognizing the difficulty nurses face in taking time off for the required 40-hour SANE training — especially in a rural hospital with a small staff — FRIS created a 24-hour online training course. Once nurses complete this course, they spend two days in a classroom to reach 40 hours.

“Everything in this line of work is baby steps.”

Along with developing more convenient training for nurses, West Virginia is making SANE services more accessible for victims. The state now requires that each county have a written plan dictating where services are available within the county and how victims can access those services. In May of 2017, the commission finished reviewing the plans and is currently sending feedback.

“We have many counties in our state that don’t have hospitals,” Hoffman said. “If a victim called a law enforcement officer and wanted an exam, there should be a very specific protocol of where that victim’s going to go, how they’re going to get there, how they’re going to get home after the exam, and that it’s done in a confidential manner.”

Through these programs and others like them, West Virginia is working to create an environment where rural residents feel comfortable and confident in reporting rape and sexual assault. These efforts involve the coordination of various moving pieces that all must come together just right. But, when the pieces fall into place and victims feel supported, it makes a difference.

“We have an increase in victims that come into our office,” Warner-Burton said. Still, she cautioned against mistaking progress for an absolute solution. “Everything in this line of work is baby steps.”

Miriam Finder Annenberg is a freelance journalist. She grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and now lives in Chicago.