Crime Bill Cosby trial puts a spotlight on how assault survivors cope

01:40  14 june  2017
01:40  14 june  2017 Source:

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Bill Cosby trial puts a spotlight on how assault survivors cope . Elona Washington. As a trial attendee, I shared a bit of my story with USA Today.

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  Bill Cosby trial puts a spotlight on how assault survivors cope © Provided by USA Today

The Bill Cosby trial has brought renewed attention to the plight of sexual assault survivors, especially those who stay silent or maintain some sort of relationship with their alleged abuser.

Andrea Constand, then a Temple University basketball manager, says she went to Cosby’s Philadelphia home in January 2004 to discuss her career plans. She says Cosby, a Temple trustee and someone she considered a mentor, drugged and molested her. Cosby denies the accusations and says the encounter was consensual.  On Tuesday, jurors continued deliberations on Day 7 of the trial.

Cosby’s lawyers have pressed the fact that Constand continued to call him and did not go to the police until a year after the alleged assault, suggesting they had a romantic relationship.

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Montgomery County Court stenographer Ginny Womelsdorf took center stage at Bill Cosby ’s high-profile sexual assault trial when all eyes, and ears, in the courtroom were drawn to her as she had to recite the testimony of three trial witnesses from whom jurors wanted to hear again.

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Maintaining relationships with perpetrators and not reporting sexual assault incidents is a pattern among victims, a seeming contradiction often used to dismantle a victim’s credibility in court, mental health and law experts say. However, experts also say it makes sense why victims decide not to come forward.

“Most sexual assault cases involve people who are known to one another; they’re not strangers,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and former prosecutor whose specialty included domestic violence cases. That, she said, makes it very difficult to speak up, especially when the perpetrator is a family member or someone the victim trusts.

Elona Washington, 46, said she was 12 or 13 when she was raped by a family friend who was finishing high school at the time. She didn’t tell anyone about it then, she said.

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“He was a part of the family, so I couldn’t really get rid of him,” Washington said. “I didn’t really have the type of family members in which I could confide, so I just kept it to myself.”

During the Cosby trial, the defense pounced on a particular part of Constand’s testimony: She said she had been planning to confront Cosby during an event he was hosting for high school students at his home, where she was also going to bring a gift for him from a mutual acquaintance.

“You were going to confront the man you say assaulted you, and you were bringing him bath salts?” Cosby lawyer Angela Agrusa said.

Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), said it is not uncommon for a victim to maintain a relationship with a perpetrator. “A lot of times, (the victims) don’t have a lot of choice about the matter.”

Washington said the family friend who assaulted her "had a lot of influence with my parents and with my aunts."

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"And me being a little girl, I couldn’t say anything that would make them think any differently about him,” she said. "I acted like everything was OK.”

Only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported, based on data collected from 2010-2014, according to RAINN.  “The one thing that is true across the board is that most survivors are reluctant to talk about (assaults),” Berkowitz said.

If the abuser is a colleague, it can be difficult for a victim to inform a supervisor or human resources manager, he noted. “A lot of times, they don’t have a lot of choice about the matter. The fact that they maintain a relationship to survive academically or professionally is not unusual.”

And if a perpetrator is a friend, cutting off contact can be awkward in a peer group setting, Berkowitz said. Those practical challenges often prevent victims from coming forward, he said.

Dr. Amy Dierberger, a psychologist at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital who works with women who have experienced trauma, cites other factors that can intimidate sexual assault victims, particularly in the courtroom. They can be asked about what they were wearing, how they might have led someone on and what they hope to gain by speaking up.

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“It is often easier to (try) to put the incident aside and to move on,” she said.

Washington says self-blame often plays a large part in not saying anything. She was raped again last year, she said, and never said anything until recently.

“I always thought it was my fault,” she said. “I ran down all the mistakes I made. I thought maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought or it didn’t happen the way it happened.”

And she thought about the process of reporting the incident to police, which can be harrowing: “I recalled a lot of what other women suffered when they told their story, and I already concluded that I would lose and it would be embarrassing,” she said. “So I decided to keep silent.”

Despite how difficult it can be, Washington thinks it is important for victims to speak up to begin the process of recovery.

“It may feel like you’re safer for keeping it in, but the anxiety and nightmares do more harm than good,” she said. “Telling someone allows for cleansing, and it helps you heal.”

Follow Sarah Toy on Twitter: @sarahtoy17.

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