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Sexual violence costs billions in Utah every year

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 13 2016 6:25 p.m. MST

Utah health officials compiled a report that totals the financial costs of sexual violence in the state.

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SALT LAKE CITY — DeAnn Tilton was sexually abused at a young age by a family member.

She recalled Wednesday that whenever she mentioned it to others, she felt like the burden was hers to maintain their "forever family," to keep the family together and "to put up with it."

"My body is my most sacred place of home and it had been violated. My home was no longer my home, no longer my refuge," she said. "When you spend your life not being able to trust going home in your own body, that sets up an entire lifetime of terror, of captivity, of deep shame and of isolation."

And though the abuse ended in her home before the now 47-year-old Tilton was a teen, she said she felt "used" during those formative years and likely set aside her own needs and desires for decades. She was raped twice in college and survived a bout with bulimia as another consequence of feeling shame.

It wasn't until she was able to develop a strong support system that she began speaking out against the abuse.

The emotional costs and societal impacts of sexual violence, similar to what Tilton experienced, are "staggering," Ron Gordon, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said Wednesday.

A new report on the costs of sexual violence in Utah reveals that the cost to Utahns in 2011 totaled nearly $5 billion, including a $4 billion estimated loss on psychological, emotional and physical suffering and a loss of quality of life for victims, as well as more than $1 billion in real costs. Gordon said Utah spent $9.7 million on investigation and adjudication of sexual violence in that year, with $82 million for confinement and treatment of perpetrators.

One-third of prison inmates, he said, "are there for sexual offenses."

And while state spending leans heavily toward the perpetrators, thousands of Utahns are victimized by sexual violence and domestic abuse each year, and 1 in 8 women and 1 in 50 men, a 2008 study found, will be raped in their lifetime.

In 2011, an estimated 3,609 children were victims of sexual assault, according to the report. There were 20,666 victims of adult rape in Utah and 54,742 victims of other adult sexual assaults, with females victimized 4 out of 5 times in cases of rape, leading to suicide attempts, pregnancies, alcohol and drug abuse, and the spread of a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, the report states.

The report, compiled by the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, can be found online at www.health.utah.gov/vipp.

"The numbers alone can't begin to quantify the impact that sexual violence has on victims, families and communities in the entire state," Gordon said, adding that having the costs totaled gives the state "a starting place" to look at what needs to change.

Dr. Robert Rolfs, deputy director of the health department, said it is astounding how much money is lost on the problem, but work is being done and can still be done in the home, at schools, and through other interactions within the community.

"We get this now. We know it is happening," he said. "It's a lot of money and most of it is people suffering."

When compared with nonvictims, victims of sexual violence reported a lower satisfaction in life, poor overall health and felt limited because of physical, emotional or mental problems, according to the data used to compile the report.

"I have worked with victims who are afraid to be alone, afraid to sleep in their own beds," said Donna Kelly, a sexual assault and domestic violence resource prosecutor with the state's attorney general. "I could talk for hours of the devastation I've seen."

She said actions of sexual assault and rape, among other violations, have lifelong consequences for victims.

With the release of the report and its disappointing information on Wednesday, Kelly said, "it's time" to enact change. And while cultural change isn't easy, she said, "our goal is worthy and our cause is just."

Kelly suggests that curbing sexual violence in the state will take help from everyone, including people in law enforcement and medical positions, teachers and church officials, members of the media and in business.

"One rape survivor once described to me that being a survivor was a terrifying and lonely journey," she said. "But we have the power to take away that loneliness, by taking away some of that terror by walking with survivors.

"We need all hands on deck to cure sexual violence in Utah," she said. "This is the place where we stand up and speak out against sexual violence."

Tilton founded Talk to a Survivor, a group that works to prevent abuse, but also helps survivors heal from sexual violence. Educating children to say no is essential but is also unrealistic, she said, so her work is focused on educating families and neighborhoods and communities as 90 percent of cases occur between people within the same circle of trust.

A more educated and informed society, Tilton said, should be able to cope better when sexual violence occurs, but also be able to prevent it better.

"Preventing sexual violence perpetration not only improves individual and population health, but can result in cost savings for both government and society," the report states. And, it goes on, "understanding the cost … is an important first step toward making policy recommendations … that need to be vigorously pursued, adopted and sustained."

Gordon said individuals can speak out when they witness "sexually aggressive and disrespectful behavior," such as age-appropriate comments, harassment, unwanted flirtations and disrespectful comments. Families can help, he said, by "modeling and sustaining nurturing and caring relationships." Businesses can invest in policies and programs that promote healthy relationships and organizations can adopt "zero tolerance" policies for sexual misconduct.

Tilton, who wears a photo of her 6-year-old self to indicate that "I am that girl who was abused," is estranged from her accused abuser. Her abuser was never charged with any crime, but she said she has been able to effectively discuss her concerns with other members of the family.

"It still affects me in every day life, but it's hard because he is still free to abuse," Tilton said, lamenting lost time. "I had aspirations I wanted to achieve. I wanted to feel like I had something meaningful to offer the world. I was not able to do that for years."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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