PROVO — It was late in the afternoon when a tall, skinny, 19-year-old Utah Valley University student slung her backpack over her shoulders and left her apartment to walk on the Provo River Parkway trail just behind her complex.
She crossed the back lawn, scattered with barbecue pits and a beach volleyball court, and stepped from the grass to the trail's pavement. It was an idyllic setting, the winding path, lined with tall, shady trees that heave in the wind, overlooking a steep bank filled with thick, green bushes that went right down to the water. The trail was usually busy that time of day in June, with joggers passing every few minutes, or mothers pushing strollers.
But there, under the trees, just feet from her apartment building, the girl with dark, almond-shaped eyes stopped. Within seconds, a stranger who approached her, asking for money, had her on the ground, choking her with a shoelace, dragging her toward those thick, green bushes.
Then he raped her, smashed her face in with a cinder block and left her for dead. When she came to, her pants were shoved down, her bra and shirt were shoved up, and her face — broken jaw, teeth knocked out, eye socket shattered — was unrecognizable, but somehow, she crawled to safety.
Her story and subsequent survival are shocking to a community where violence is low and accounts of women being attacked by strangers in broad daylight are rare. But sexual assault isn't unfamiliar to the Utah County Rape Crisis Team, an organization of volunteers who rush to the emergency room in the middle of the night — or whenever they're summoned by the hospital — to give victims support.
Last year, the team helped 316 rape victims and their family members, though the majority of the rapes were never part of a criminal report. Still, with 107 rape cases documented in the Bureau of Criminal Identification's latest Crime in Utah Report, Utah County ranked second in the state for reported rapes last year. The idea that hundreds more rape survivors need help but don't come forward is a chilling motivation for the Rape Crisis Team. They believe they can make a difference, one trauma at a time.
In a quiet, lamp-lit basement of an office building in Orem, a handful of women and a man are gathered for a weekly support group for dealing with the aftermath of rape. The overhead lights are turned off, the curtains on the windows are drawn, and on a bookshelf with a box of tissues and neatly placed crisis videos, there is a book turned on its side that says, "Angels among us."
The women are talking about loss and grief, and they mention the recent, brutal Provo rape when they say they can't watch the news anymore. The student survived, but she still has months of surgery and staggering medical bills in front of her. Shawn Leonard, of Springville, is charged with attempted aggravated murder, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping in connection with the attack. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15.
The members of the group can empathize with the girl's nightmare. One woman, a middle-aged mother wearing capris and sandals, has been raped five separate times, each time by a different man. Another woman, who has a pink canister of mace on her key chain, doesn't say much about her rapes, except that they began when she was young, from a family member.
"I don't know how to identify with people whose life is always perfect," she said to the group, crying. "I don't know how to identify because I've never lived that kind of life."
The Rape Crisis volunteer leading the discussion explains to the group that their feelings are normal and they can regain balance in their lives again someday. The women say they hope that's true. Neither of them reported their rapes when they occurred.
Only 12 percent of rape victims ever report the crime, but 1 in 8 women in Utah will be raped during her lifetime, according to a 2007 survey conducted by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. A third of the women in Utah will experience some form of sexual violence during her life, the study says.
"People think rape is only when someone jumps out of the bushes and takes you by surprise," said Tina Francis, who's been on the team for more than two years. "But that's just not true. If it's not consent it is rape. Consent is … not the absence of 'no,' it's the presence of 'yes.' Somebody vocalizing, 'Yes I'm OK with this.' "
Last year, reports of rape increased slightly in Utah, but the gap between reported rapes and unreported rapes — as revealed by the Criminal and Juvenile Justice department's survey of 1,816 women in 2007 — is troubling to those who deal with the problem.
When victims don't report their assaults, it often means they aren't getting the aid they need to heal, and they aren't eligible to receive crime victim reparation funds to help cover costs of recovery. Also of concern is the fact that Utah's rape rate is consistently higher than the national average. The Utah rate was 63.7 per 100,000 females in 2008 compared to 57.4 nationally, which makes officials worry the incidence of rape could be worse than they surmise.
"People really don't understand how prevalent rape and sexual assault (are) in the state of Utah," said Ned Searle, director of the Office on Violence Against Women and Families. "We've got to figure out what we need to do to get people reporting, because we know it's happening a lot more."
In the heart of Utah County, where the Rape Crisis Team fields most of their calls, police department numbers show that 42 rapes were reported in Provo last year, with six arrests. In Orem, eight offenses were recorded.
Many of the rapes happen at parties, where the victim might have been inebriated, said Orem police Sgt. Craig Martinez. Those circumstances make it difficult for the victim to report the crime, because he or she may not really know what happened to them. They may go home to shower and wash their clothes, destroying the evidence, before calling the police.
"Then all we have to go on is her statement against his statement," Martinez said.
Still, one of the Rape Crisis Team's goals is to help women and men realize they are not responsible for being raped. The guilt and shame associated rape are major reasons why victims often don't report the crimes.
"You could have been drunk, passed out on a bed, naked, and that doesn't give him a right to touch you," said Jake Price, a 26-year-old team member and student at Brigham Young University.
Price joined the team when a friend invited him along. After training sessions and a background check, he, along with the other 38 members of the team, assumed a role that began with the nonprofit Rape Crisis Team's inception in 1987.
They carry a cell phone for rotating shifts of 48 hours each, and when a rape victim arrives at an emergency room, the on-call members are notified by the hospital. They'll go meet the victim, bringing a backpack of supplies with a change of clothes and underwear, in case the victim's clothing is needed for evidence; a blanket; resource lists for counseling and support; and snacks, because often, it's been hours since the victim was able to eat.
Then they'll just listen. Or sit there in silence. Or explain what happens in the forensic exam and why it's important for gathering evidence. After, they host support groups, make follow up calls to check on the survivor and teach community classes. Anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted can call the crisis line for help.
"I think the biggest value is that we know the whole process," said Mindy Woodhouse, director of sexual assault outreach, who oversees the Rape Crisis Team. "At the hospital the doctors are doing what they need to do and the police are doing what they need to do and we are there to provide support to the family members and the victims and I think that is invaluable."
As the class gathered in the basement ends and the group leaves, there's a heavy feeling in the air. It's been emotionally difficult. Yet, after listening and being heard for an hour and a half, the group members say they feel validated, encouraged by the knowledge they're not alone. They say this is changing their lives.
And that is the thing Francis says she's learned from her years of volunteering with the team. Sometimes, all it takes to make a difference is just being there.
"I've learned so much about people," Francis said. "People are really fragile, and all of a sudden you realize people just need someone to care. It sounds so simple, like it should be more complicated than that, but it's really not. It's really not."
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