Prout and Kuster pave way for more sexual assault survivors to come forward

  • Former St. Paul’s School student Chessy Prout (right), the victim in the high-profile Owen Labrie case, stands with Rep. Annie Kuster on Capitol Hill in Washington last week after announcing the launch of a new bipartisan congressional task force to end sexual violence. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 4/13/2017 11:42:09 PM

Chessy Prout never wanted the fame and attention. She never sought the spotlight that only national television cameras can bring.

The young woman at the center of a high-profile rape case that rocked Concord felt helpless as the darkest corners of the Internet took control of her fate: Anonymous strangers were posting pictures of her, her family, her home.

Her name and pieces of her past were slipping from her grasp, and she knew it was time to go public.

She wanted other victims of sexual assault to understand that they, too, didn’t have to hide in the shadows anymore, and let fear and shame keep them from speaking out.

In her first interview on NBC’s Today show this past August, Prout reclaimed her identity and her life. The focus shifted from a teenage victim to a survivor’s bravery. She had owned her truth, and pledged to take a traumatic personal experience and turn it into something positive.

Her healing journey brought her to the public stage, a place few victims of sexual violence ever go. 

With the support of advocates in New Hampshire, Prout has joined a growing national movement to end sexual violence and help other survivors find their voices. Since launching her #IHaveTheRightTo campaign on social media in August, millions of survivors and supporters have responded.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster was among the first to do so, tweeting “Incredibly proud of Chessy Prout for bravely sharing her story & letting sexual assault survivors know they are not alone.”

Two months earlier, Kuster had stood behind the lectern on the House floor to tell the world about the sexual assaults she suffered as a young woman nearly 40 years earlier. What had motivated her to go public were the words of a woman whom the world had come to know as “Emily Doe.” The woman was sexually assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who in early 2016 was sentenced to just six months in jail. The court’s decision sparked outrage.

“The message we hear and the message the court sent in Stanford is that we are not safe, we are not secure and we do not deserve to be free,” Kuster said from the House floor in June. “Free from sexual assault, free from rape, free from rude, crude, obnoxious, offensive assault on our body, our being, ourselves. We are all Emily Doe.”

Two months into her own awareness campaign, Kuster watched with admiration and respect when Prout bravely shed her anonymity. Kuster reached out to Prout to say she was impressed with “her eloquence and courage.”

That initial conversation laid the foundation for something bigger than maybe either of them realized at the time.

Just last week, Kuster and Prout stood beyond the steps of the U.S. Capitol to announce the launch of a new congressional task force to end sexual violence that includes representatives from both sides of the political aisle. The task force will focus on issues such as sexual assault education, campus safety, data collection and law enforcement training.

Kuster told reporters that public stigma surrounding sexual violence has fostered a culture of silence, and that “it’s long past time we shatter that silence.”

The congresswoman and Prout will be among the panelists at the “Voices for Change” event planned for Monday night at University of New Hampshire Law School in Concord.

Together, they are helping reshape the public dialogue by speaking openly about a public health crisis that for generations has been shrouded in secrecy. In doing so, they are paving the way for a growing number of men and women in New Hampshire – and nationally – to tell their stories and ask for help.

Beyond silence

For those who choose to speak out, the reporting process can take many forms: One person may call a confidential hotline to speak with an advocate. Another may begin a conversation with police and decide not to go forward. Others choose to go public with their stories and attach their names. The Monitor will publish the stories of some of those survivors in the following days as part of a series called “Unsilenced.”

A victims’ decision to report sexual abuse is not one they reach lightly, and can be complicated by a number of factors, especially if the perpetrator is known to them. Sometimes fear, sometimes the thought of sending someone to prison are enough to keep a victim quiet.

Not all who have experienced sexual violence are after justice in its most traditional form: a guilty verdict. For those who are, prosecutors are up front about the uphill battle ahead, and the real possibility that the case may never go before a jury.

“It’s hard to get that rock solid evidence,” said Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo. “Sexual assault victims are subject to a level of scrutiny that is unlike what we see in any other crime.”

Prosecutors noted very few instances of people filing false reports of sexual assault in New Hampshire. Interviewers said they are trained to ask non-leading questions and to listen for certain details that can help them weigh the truthfulness of the claims.

One of the primary reasons sexual assault victims don’t come forward is because they don’t think anyone will believe them; instead, they fear they will be blamed for what happened. The average person is unlikely to ask a robbery victim, “Did you want it? Were you asking for it?” Whereas in sexual assault cases, those questions are an all-too-common reality for victims who disclose.

“It’s the victim always placed on trial, never the defendant,” Assistant Merrimack County Attorney David Rotman said, noting that his or her credibility will come under attack by the defense.

Sexual violence is believed to be the most underreported crime, and it is almost always perpetrated in a secret place where there are no witnesses. In many cases, there is little, if any, physical or medical evidence, especially in situations of delayed disclosure. These factors make prosecuting sexual assault cases extremely challenging, but not impossible, prosecutors say.

“Every case is so unique,” Saffo said, “and while it would be great if we had a checklist to follow, that’s just simply not the reality.”

‘It’s happening’

Legal professionals, advocates and medical providers say that new strategies that promote frequent collaboration between and among their agencies has helped foster greater awareness and understanding of the victim experience.

Seven years ago, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office launched a statewide initiative to develop and implement Sexual Assault Resource Teams (SARTs) in all 10 counties. The goal of the teams is to enhance the quality of the response and investigations in adult sexual assault cases, said SART Coordinator Kathleen Kimball, a retired detective/sergeant with a 23-year career in law enforcement.

So far, the program has launched 11 resource teams in eight counties, including in Grafton and Hillsborough counties, which each have more than one. The group is working on establishing teams in Carroll and Coos counties as soon as possible, Kimball said.

“There are some victims who just want somebody to listen to them and hear them. Personally, I don’t think the criminal justice system always helps victims, so there has to be other ways to support them,” she said.

During her more than two decades in law enforcement, Kimball regularly heard police officers and prosecutors say, “It’s not happening in my part of the state. We don’t get those cases.” To which she would respond, “Yes, it’s happening. People just aren’t reporting.”

She said she believes the SART program is changing the reporting experience in a positive way, and making adults feel more comfortable about coming forward. For some, their stories are now being heard at child advocacy centers in the state, which have historically provided safe spaces for interviews with 3 to 17 year olds.

One of the organizations that benefits from the SART initiative is the New Hampshire Violence Against Women Campus Consortium, a statewide nonprofit agency whose mission is to provide a forum where post-secondary institutions can “discuss, develop, and implement strategies to end violence against women on their respective campuses.”

College Consortium Coordinator Kathryn Kiefer, who began her work as an advocate in college, said there is great value in connecting higher education professionals with community agencies, which can provide immediate access to resources in crisis situations.

“It’s the difference between a person saying, ‘Here’s a brochure with a crisis center number,’ and a person saying, ‘I’m concerned about your well-being and safety, I’d like to get an advocate on the phone for you,’ ” Kiefer said.

Not alone

The decision to speak publicly about sexual assault or to remain anonymous is equally honored by advocates and mental health professionals. The choice to identify as a victim or as a survivor is individual, and isn’t necessarily clearly defined.

“You never know how one person feels,” said Paula Kelley-Wall, the director of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire. “Your personal journey should not be something that holds the weight of the world – and, yes, there are changemakers in this world who are going to go out and scream about what happened. They’re really going to move into a form of survivorship that’s different. Some people really stay in victimhood, and that’s okay. Something traumatic happened to you, and however you deal with it is 100 percent your choice.”

For those who stay anonymous in their fight for justice, there is a safe place for them to leave their mark.

Dozens of brightly colored handprints that cover the walls of New Hampshire’s advocacy centers serve as a silent reminder of how prevalent sexual abuse still is in society. The handprints help reaffirm for children – and, as of recently, some adults – that they are not alone.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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