Safe Shelter helps 21 victims of sexual assault in 2011“I think I was raped.” Sometimes these are the first words that Mary Thysell, sexual assault services coordinator, hears over the phone at Safe Shelter in Jamestown. “They tend to be pretty numbed-out,” Thysell said of the victims. “Their affect is really flat — it’s too much to deal with.”
By: Kari Lucin, The Jamestown Sun
“I think I was raped.”
Sometimes these are the first words that Mary Thysell, sexual assault services coordinator, hears over the phone at Safe Shelter in Jamestown.
“They tend to be pretty numbed-out,” Thysell said of the victims. “Their affect is really flat — it’s too much to deal with.”
Most often, the caller is a woman, age 35 or younger. She may not remember a lot about her assault, especially if she’d been drinking or if it occurred a long time ago. Sometimes the caller is still in physical discomfort.
Last year, Safe Shelter in Jamestown helped 21 victims of sexual assault, including 14 primary victims and seven secondary victims — those who love someone who became a victim of sexual assault and who are also harmed by the crime, Thysell said.
It is estimated that only about one in every 10 victims actually contacts Safe Shelter or a similar organization, Thysell said.
If that estimate is correct, it would mean that at least 210 people in Jamestown — men, women and children — were victims of sexual assault in 2011.
According to a national survey, 188,380 sexual assaults were reported in the U.S. in 2010.
“We’ve just had too many silent victims over the years, who have carried around assaults over the years, and never told anyone,” Thysell said.
President Barack Obama designated April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in 2012, noting that victims often suffer in silence.
“By standing with survivors of rape and sexual assault and helping them secure the support and services they deserve, we do right by the ideals of compassion and service at the heart of the American character,” Obama said.
Safe Shelter has served as an advocate for victims of domestic violence since 1981, and expanded to serve victims of sexual violence three years later. The group has a 24-hour crisis line and also offers support to victims who report sexual assault, from staying with them during examinations and interviews with detectives, to helping with orders of protection.
“It just depends on what our clients are in need of at the time,” Thysell said.
Safe Shelter might even lend victims their first month’s rent to help them escape abusive situations, or refer someone to another organization for more services.
Safe Shelter helped about 180 people experiencing domestic violence last year, from 18-year-olds to people in their 70s.
Though sexual assault cases are more common with younger people, Thysell recalled a case of a 78-year old woman who had been assaulted by her own husband.
In North Dakota, sexual assault crisis centers served 828 primary victims and 258 secondary victims in 2011.
“(Jamestown’s) no different than other places,” Thysell said. “This happens in every community in America.”
And the offender is not generally a stranger. In her 23 years at Safe Shelter, Thysell has seen only about 10 sexual assault victims whose assailants were strangers.
“We’re talking about acquaintances. There is no doubt about it,” she said. “Even children are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know, as opposed to a stranger.”
A sexual assault is never, ever the victim’s fault, regardless of what a victim was wearing or if the victim was drinking, Thysell said.
However, there are a few ways people should protect themselves, such as staying sober, or if not, designating someone in a group to make sure everyone gets home safely at the end of the night. People should also be active bystanders, and not allow friends to go home with people they’ve just met.
If a sexual assault does happen, there are places victims can get help.
The Sexual Assault Response Team can help victims while they are reporting an assault, by providing them with confidential examinations and turning the results over to law enforcement officers.
Safe Shelter can also help.
Generally, Thysell meets with a victim first, to tell her or him what rights he or she has and what to expect from physical examinations and interviews with the police. She can stay with the victim during the interview with police, or not, as each victim chooses.
During interviews victims are often very calm, Thysell said. Sometimes they find the examination difficult — they may have to leave their clothes behind as evidence, or have evidence collected from their hair, saliva or blood. There’s also an internal examination, and detectives take pictures.
It is always the state’s attorney's choice whether to prosecute the perpetrator, Thysell said.
Often, when victims leave, they’ll have people waiting to take them home. If not, a police officer can provide a ride.
Later, Thysell follows up with them, helping them get orders of protection against their attackers or finding out what else they need help with. Services such as the Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification (SAVIN) can automatically inform registered victims of an offender’s release from jail or prison.
“It’s difficult, and it takes a long time for somebody to recover (from a sexual assault),” Thysell said, emphasizing that people should call if they need help, even if an assault occurred a long time ago.
Safe Shelter’s crisis line is open 24 hours a day, and can be reached at 701-251-2300 or 888-353-7233. To sign up for North Dakota’s SAVIN, call 1-866-631-8463.
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453 or by email at email@example.com