SPECIAL REPORT: 7 things to reconsider about domestic violence and sexual assault


Law enforcement and advocates in the community agree that sexual assault and domestic violence are taboo topics that carry a lot of misconceptions. 

Here are seven things community leaders said go unnoticed about these sensitive issues.

Why people don’t report their abuse

Lt. Mike Sienkiewicz from the Central Michigan University Police Department said a large number of sexual assault and domestic violence cases are not reported.

”It’d be hard to say an exact number, but we know statistically speaking that most of those crimes go unreported,”he said.

Chief Prosecutor of Isabella County Dave Barberi said it is also possible for survivors to change their mind when calling the police.  

Sienkiewicz said there are a lot of barriers to why people would not want to see a case being prosecuted. 

“It can be embarrassing, it can be humiliating,” he said. “It’s often between friends or somebody that you’re close with. But we work as hard as we can to break down those barriers and encourage people to report and provide the resources for them to feel comfortable to come forward.” 

R.I.S.E. Advocacy is a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Rachael Eisenberg, R.I.S.E.’s program manager, said people can be scared of going to the hospital or contacting R.I.S.E. because they think it would make their situation more harmful.

“There’s a lot of victim blaming in different settings and capacities,” Eisenberg said. “I definitely think that there are multiple cases in any kind of setting of a relationship that go unreported.

“A lot of times it can be very defeating for a survivor to have to share their story over and over again.”

Manipulation is often a reason for survivors to not report their abuser. Sometimes, an abuser may give them a false image of what the outcome will be, Eisenberg said. Someone might also not want to report because they are afraid the legal process will be too expensive.

“A lot of our clients don't have that luxury – missing time from work to attend those (court) dates that can drag on and on, especially when an abuser may pretend or intentionally miss a court date to have it rescheduled,” Eisenberg said. “That's another form of abuse as well. 

"So there are so many reasons why someone wouldn't want to necessarily go forward with that process.”

R.I.S.E. can help with the legal fees if a person is afraid reporting would cost money, Eisenberg said.

“We are trying to help where we can, but we have limited funding available for sure, as many nonprofits do,” Eisenberg said. “We can help with a bus ticket or a car to get there. We can help with childcare.”

Sienkiewicz said he would encourage people to report sexual assault and domestic violence to the police.

“To have their story heard and be believed and to get the justice that they see appropriate in their case, we encourage people to report,” Sienkiewicz said. “We’ll listen, we’ll provide resources.”

Magdalena Lopez, the sexual assault team coordinator, said when people do contact the police, they could end up facing unintended consequences. 

“Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you would hope,” Lopez said. “For example, let’s say we have a couple who’s arguing constantly, and the perpetrator knows how to push buttons, and they push the buttons. ... The one time the victim pushes back, that’s when they call the cops, and now the victim is the one getting arrested and getting charged with domestic violence.” 

How it can affect people in ways you might not expect

Lopez said a lot of people would be surprised if they knew the people impacted by sexual assault and domestic violence cases. She said people expect these cases to be a “poor person’s problem,” or that those involved are uneducated and have substance abuse problems. 

This is not always the case, she said.

R.I.S.E has helped clients who haven’t completed high school, people with doctorates, wealthy people, people in positions of power and well-respected community members, she said. 

Of the two issues, R.I.S.E. sees more domestic violence cases, Lopez said, which is probably because it is less taboo than sexual assault. 

LGBTQ people can be affected in unique ways by domestic violence and sexual assault, Lopez said. If someone is not out yet, an abusive partner could manipulate them by threatening to reveal their gender or sexual identity.

“Their threat of outing them is obviously causing a safety concern because what if their support system is not safe?” Lopez said. “If they were outed, would that mean they would lose parental support? Would they lose housing? Would they lose scholarships? 

"While it can affect people all across the board, there are certain things that can only happen in certain populations.” 

Sienkiewicz said there is also a stereotype that sexual assault happens between strangers. He said the most common sexual assault cases happens between acquaintances or friends. 

The impact on children

Ashlee Shearer is a counselor specializing in eating disorders, anxiety and depression at Center of Hope Counseling, a private practice group with an office in Mount Pleasant. 

Seeing or experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault also impacts children, she said.

“Your experience as a kid has a tendency to really impact our experiences as adults,” Shearer said.

Shearer said working with children is complicated because they might not talk about their experience.

“Kids that maybe have been molested for a long time by someone that is close to them, they might be told, ‘Don’t tell anybody this, keep this our little secret,’” Shearer said. “And kids really try to listen to that because they think it’s to protect the other people around them.”

In their adult life, Shearer said children who witness domestic violence in their household between parents may have a harder time trusting people, have more anxiety or experience loneliness and depression.

“Maybe sexual assault, domestic violence happening in a household – that's all this kid's ever known,” she said. “They might tend to find relationships where that might be happening again or they might be subjected to that in other relationships. … We really recognize some red flags … but if a kid is only ever experienced those more troubled relationships, they might not see that.”

Chief of the Mount Pleasant Police Department Paul Lauria has found in his 27 years working there, most domestic abuse cases he has seen have been related to children. He said it is extremely challenging when working on those cases, especially if the child is a minor. This usually means there is even more of an emotional attachment between parents who are fighting over custody. 

“You’ll see that because there will be built up frustration, you're sharing the time with that child,” he said. “There’s people that use the front lobby of the police department – every single day it’s being used. Because they can't transition the child from Dad to Mom or Mom to Dad – without feeling scared to do so – unless they're here doing it. It's sad.”

Lopez said she has had children as young as 4 years old in her office, and clients as old as 92 years old.  

Barberi has noticed the age range of victims for sexual assault and domestic abuse to be “very even across the board,” he said. However, he has usually seen domestic abuse decrease when people reach 60 years old. 

Stalking among students

Barberi said his office has seen more sexual assault and stalking on campus than domestic abuse. He personally thinks stalking cases can be much worse because there is a level of mental instability that requires a “more cold, calculated, thought-driven, prolonged process of criminal thought,” he said. 

Therefore, things can potentially become very serious and threatening. The average sentence for stalking on first offenses depends, but Barberi said they tend to look at stalking cases differently than domestic abuse. Typically, convicted stalkers receive longer periods of probation so they can be monitored. 

When people think of what a stalker may look like, Lopez said there are prevalent stereotypes built by society. She said people tend to think it is just a “random person in a hoodie showing up in random places or popping out behind a tree unexpectedly.” However, that is not the reality for most people.

“More often than not, when someone leaves an abusive relationship, that is the most dangerous time,” she said. “It’s about a 60% increase in likelihood that there will be violence. 

"Stalking looks like blowing up your phone. It looks like contacting your friends to get a hold of you. It looks like trying to figure out your location either through the Snapchat map or where you’re posting from on Facebook. It looks like talking to the kids and asking the kids to tell them where you are. Sometimes it looks like looking at your mobile banking app to see where the last credit card usage was.”

Secondhand trauma 

Lopez said some people can be considered “secondary survivors” after someone close to them experiences abuse. These people can develop vicarious trauma and want to seek counseling for it, she said. 

“Let’s say we have a parent whose child was sexually assaulted,” Lopez said. “They’ve never experienced sexual assault, but now they’re dealing with a child processing that trauma. 

"I’ve had situations where, maybe I have college roommates, and one ... roommate is experiencing domestic violence with their partner, and the person is like, ‘This is reminding me of when I when I was a kid,’ or ‘This is completely new to me because I had a really great childhood, and now I’m seeing this and it’s giving me anxiety.’ They can come see a counselor.” 

Jordan Rios, a victims right advocate at the Isabella County Prosecutor’s office, referred to second-hand trauma as a “missed topic” in law enforcement. She said it is not so much the day-to-day operation, but the trauma you may pick up from working on some of these cases. 

“There are men and women in this county, and people who have been doing this for, like, 20 to 30 years,” Rios said. “And it's like war stories. You just get stuck in doing the day-to-day and you don't have anyone to talk to. You don't have anyone to process anything with.”

For the last few years, training at the prosecutor's office has focused heavily on what improvement and vicarious trauma looks like, she said. 

“Because sometimes when you're talking about getting to the root of the problem, you have to understand the problem to begin with,” Rios said. 

Rios said she had no idea what self-care or vicarious trauma was in her first few years of working at the prosecutor's office. However, she was not alone.

“As soon as we started having those trainings and seeing that support, it made a lot of sense for a lot of counties. ... A lot of people, they're like, ‘oh, yeah, I mean I always thought about work while I was at home,” she said. “I just didn't connect the two that I was having issues with burnout and vicarious trauma.”

Rios takes pride in the way the prosecutor’s office addresses vicarious trauma. She said it emphasizes healthy and open communication within the office. 

Self-care matters for counselors and police officers

It is important for advocates to take care of their own mental health, Lopez said. Setting boundaries between her job and her life has been major, she said. 

“Many years ago, there was a case that was particularly violent, and I think most people would say it’s true domestic violence,” Lopez said. “It involved a lot of physical abuse. When I personally went to that house, I saw what I would describe as blood on the walls. That was a very difficult thing to see. It was my first experience seeing something like that. So definitely that day I went back to the office and I said, ‘Alright, we’re canceling the rest of the appointments for the day. ... I just need to kind of sit with this and process that.”

Several R.I.S.E. employees have separate cell phones for work and personal use so they can put aside the work day when they need to. 

Rios said she had a point in her career when she almost quit her job. It made her rethink what boundaries meant for her. When Rios was 23, she was constantly sick and didn’t have paid time off. 

“I felt like I was just constantly running in a circle,” Rios said. 

That was when she realized what self-care meant for her.

“I had a very superficial definition of what self-care looked like,” Rios said. “I didn’t understand why it wasn't getting better. I was getting worse. It's because I really didn't take time to invest in myself.”

Now to take care of herself, Rios sits at home and watches “three hours of T.V.,” spends time with friends, does yoga, cooks, reads books and listens to music. 

Self-care is different for everybody, and it is important to find enjoyment that brings one peace, she said.  

Although the work is challenging, Lopez said it is vital for the community. 

“This work is very humbling,” Lopez said. “It’s work that is very much needed, because oftentimes it’s so taboo to talk about sexual assault and to talk about domestic violence in different communities, whether it’s LGBTQ relationships or if it’s incest in family systems. 

"I think the work that I do, or the work that we do, can be very rewarding. It can also be very frustrating because it’s so taboo.”

An unforgettable case

In an interview with the Society of Professional Journalists at Central Michigan University, Lauria gave an example of a domestic abuse case he will “never, ever forget.” The case took place in 1998, only a year after he joined MPPD. 

Lauria went into undercover narcotics when he came into the police department in 1997. He eventually was given a case where a man in Mount Pleasant allegedly bit and severely disfigured a female victim. The man claimed she was his friend, alleging they would meet up, do cocaine and have consensual sex on a frequent basis, Lauria said. 

The man knew of his charges and the warrant out for his arrest, and fled to an oil rig in Mexico, Lauria said. Police in another state extradited him to Michigan for a jury trial. 

The jury found the man not guilty and closed the case. His defense was the woman was “into that,” Lauria said. 

“I mean, her face – it was horrific,” he said. “And when that jury said 'We just think that there's reasonable doubt here … her memory would be bad if she was using drugs,' and you know,  ‘we're gonna give you a second chance, and we're going to do it by telling you, you better behave, you better be on the straight and narrow.’ 

"The prosecutor at the time ... was distraught over that. I'll never forget that. He was distraught over that, he couldn't believe it.”

A year later, in 1999, the same man was arrested for attempting to sexually assault a Central Michigan University athlete. The student lived in Chip Village at the time and she had gotten home from grocery shopping with her hands full – leaving the keys in the door when she got inside, Lauria said. 

After putting away her groceries, the student purportedly forgot about the keys and eventually went to bed. She allegedly awoke to a towel folded over her chest and arms and a man straddling her on top of the towel, Lauria said. 

“And he (purportedly) said, ‘Don't yell, don't scream or I'll kill you.’ And he was going to sexually assault her,” Lauria said. “Well, what he didn't account for was her strength, her ability to really survive.”

The student athlete fought back, purportedly leaving her assailant with a bleeding lump on the side of his head and a broken ankle. It was snowing, so when police were called and followed the man’s tracks from the apartment, there were visibly “messed up” footprints, Lauria said. 

“And so we knew he had to get medical care,” Lauria said. “What the officers did was they put out an All Points Bulletin to all the hospitals in the surrounding area. And Alma hospital called and said, ‘We have a guy here that has a broken ankle and a big knot on the side of his head.’ And we go down there, of course, he says he fell off the porch, he was drinking and all that, but the damage was done. That bloodspot (from the studen'ts apartment) which our officers collected, (was) sent ... to the DNA lab and wham. They already had his DNA on file.”

That was due to his previous domestic abuse case. In court, his lawyer and the judge ruled it was unacceptable, considering that case had been closed and he was found not guilty. The prosecutor issued another warrant for DNA evidence, swabbed the man’s mouth and then he was off to prison, Lauria said. 

The man was sentenced to life in prison, which is 25 years in Michigan. Lauria said the case could have taken place around 1999 or 2000, meaning the man could be released within the next few years.

Related content:   
Sexual assault and domestic abuse: What these issues mean for our community
How R.I.S.E. supports survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault  
Partners for protection: Advocates, police work together to support survivors
Local resources for support and protection  
Editorial: You are not alone  
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