Sexual assault and domestic abuse: What these issues mean for our community

Meet the people working to restore hope, justice to survivors

This graphic shows the reported incidence of domestic violence and sexual assault from 2012 to 2022, according to Mount Pleasant Police Department statistics. [CM Life graphic | Madelyn Kerbyson]

Magdalena Lopez, the sexual assault team coordinator at R.I.S.E Advocacy, said one of the most important things to understand about sexual assault and domestic violence is that they are not unique to any group of people.

The stereotype, according to Lopez, is that these issues only affect women in heterosexual relationships where a man is the perpetrator. While statistically this case is more likely, Lopez said it does not reflect the whole reality. 

Sexual assault and domestic violence also happen to men, LGBTQ people, people of all races and people in positions of power, she said. Lopez said R.I.S.E. works with clients as young as 4 years old, and she has seen clients as old as 92. 

“It does not matter,” Lopez said. “However you identify, no one should be experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault.”

Lopez also said there are many harmful myths and stereotypes about victims of domestic violence – one is that people think victims deserve it.  

“Misconceptions would be that the victim likes it,” Lopez said, “or that they deserve it, (or) they knew who they were getting into a relationship with, so why is it an issue all of a sudden? 

"Realistically, most people that are abusive, they’re really good at hiding the fact that they’re abusive, or they’re really good at exploiting vulnerabilities in other folks.” 

In many abusive relationships, there is a cycle of abuse characterized by a “honeymoon phase,” and then “escalation,” followed by another honeymoon phase, Lopez said. 

“Once you’re in it, it can get real dangerous, real quick,” Lopez said. “Or it can be super subtle and you won’t see it for years; and then you realize what’s going (on), but now you’re years into this. It might be really difficult for that person to try to reel it back and get some of that control back. You really can’t put a label on these things.”

Lopez said, on average, it takes people between seven and 11 times of leaving and returning to an abusive relationship for them to finally escape their situation. 

Courtesy photo | Magdalena Lopez
“However you identify, no one should be experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault.”
Magdalena Lopez, sexual assault team coordinator at R.I.S.E Advocacy

Marcella Lloyd, the director of R.I.S.E., said another issue is that many healthcare workers are not trained in how to help patients with trauma. 

“When you’re in the healthcare world, you’re so focused on the medical need that sometimes you forget the psychological need,” Lloyd said. 

There is a similar problem in law enforcement, according to Krysta Carabelli, a crisis and trauma response clinician with R.I.S.E. In her position, she works alongside the Mount Pleasant Police Department to give psychological care to victims. 

“The officers – they’re not trained in how to (treat) mental health,” Carabelli said. “When you go through the academy, they don’t do any mental health training.”

Organizations like R.I.S.E. and local police may find themselves working with the same survivors, but oftentimes there is a gap between the reports both receive. Lopez said there are likely many cases that likely go unreported to R.I.S.E., police or other organizations. Carabelli said R.I.S.E. has strict confidentiality rules that prevent them from filing a police report without a client’s consent. 

This discrepancy also happens on Central Michigan University’s campus. According to a report from the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity, in the 2021 to 2022 academic year, there were 238 misconduct allegations based on dating violence, domestic violence, gender or sex, gender identity, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking.

Deputy Director of the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity (OCRIE) Mary Martinez informs students of resources on campus for victims of sexual assault March 20 in the Bovee University Center Lake Huron Room. The event was hosted by the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity.

Mary Martinez, the executive director of OCRIE, said people are still learning how to communicate post-COVID.

“As people are trying to navigate new relationships, it might be a first relationship as well … we're just learning how to re-engage in society in the flesh, in the human form, not just online,” Martinez said.  

According to CMU Police Public Information Officer Lt. Mike Sienkiewicz, in 2021, CMUPD responded to eight rape incidents, six of which were on campus. They also responded to 14 domestic violence incidents, eight of which were on campus. 

Carabelli said it is likely there will always be incidents that go unreported to the police. 

“There is a trauma and a risk that occurs with reporting,” Carabelli said. “Reporting might look like, now I have to go to the hospital and do a (sexual assault) exam and I don’t want to do that. Or now I have to expose myself to the legal system. Or now my partner knows that police are involved and they might escalate.” 

How did COVID-19 affect reporting?

Courtesy photo | David Barberi
"COVID-19 was a pressure cooker – a perfect storm of no access to services, a ton of uncertainty in the world."
- David Barberi, Isabella County prosecutor

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when few students were on campus, the numbers of domestic violence and sexual assault reports on campus decreased, Sienkiewicz said.

“Anecdotally, I know there was a rise in domestic violence incidents around COVID,” he said. “We didn't see a whole lot on campus just because there wasn't a whole lot of people here. But I'm sure in the community, it was still happening.” 

Martinez also said she believes it was still happening. People being homebound during the pandemic allowed sexual assault and domestic violence to increase, she said.

“I think one thing that is – I don't want to use the word 'tragic,' but that's the only word that's coming to my mind – is that through COVID, so many people had been isolated and staying at home, that domestic violence and dating violence situations have perpetuated," Martinez said. "People weren't going out and weren't going to classrooms, and you weren't seeing your friends as often or you weren't in the eyesight of your faculty members or others. 

“There was not that check and balance of ‘I have to go outside, people are going to notice my black eye’ or ‘People are going to notice I'm not myself.’”

During the 2018-19 academic year, OCRIE recorded 365 misconduct allegations based on dating violence, domestic violence, gender or sex, gender identity, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking. A file may have multiple allegations, according to Martinez. One allegation is counted for each instance of harassment, discrimination or sexual misconduct per file. Martinez said the data is aggregated to protect the privacy of individuals. 

In the first year of the pandemic, during the 2020-21 academic year, OCRIE recorded 182 misconduct allegations based on dating violence, domestic violence, gender or sex, gender identity, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking, nearly half of the reported numbers two years prior.

David Barberi, the Isabella County prosecutor, said pandemic isolation added extra challenges. 

“COVID-19 was a pressure cooker – a perfect storm of no access to services, a ton of uncertainty in the world,” Barberi said. “(People) couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing something bad – job uncertainty, a lot of stress and outside pressure going out in the world. People were once separated for eight hours a day and now they’re forced to remain together for the entire day."

The pandemic also affected the legal process when prosecuting perpetrators, he said. Many survivors grew tired of dealing with the court system and pandemic isolation at the same time.  

What does the legal process look like for survivors? 

According to Lt. Sienkiewicz, when the police receive a report about sexual assault or domestic violence, they work with different departments at CMU and in Mount Pleasant, such as McLaren Central Michigan Hospital, for collecting evidence.

The evidence needed could be physical evidence, DNA or digital footprints, he said.

With domestic violence cases, if CMUPD has probable cause to make an arrest, they will do so immediately, Sienkiewicz said.

The Mount Pleasant Police Department works with R.I.S.E. through a crisis intervention program, according to Carabelli. If a domestic violence incidence occurs, the police would contact her, and she will respond in person or over the phone to counsel survivors.

Barberi said domestic violence and sexual assault cases are the hardest to prove because of the lack of evidence. Overall, he said, less than 1% of cases go to trial.

Barberi said during the case process, a judge reviews the credibility of statements and tries to match what both sides say. Sexual assault and domestic violence cases also allow hearsay evidence, he said, which is difficult to prove in court. 

Police reports are sent to Barberi’s office for review, and the case moves through the court system, Sienkiewicz said. Depending on the situation, there could be jail time, fines or probation, he said.

Simple domestic violence is a 90-day misdemeanor, Barberi said. Aggravated domestic violence is a one-year misdemeanor. The consequences for sexual assault are different and might include 15 years, 25 years or a life imprisonment. Barberi said things like criminal history and intoxication also play a role in conviction.

After their sentence is complete, an offender is put on probation for up to 5 years, Barberi said.

Courtesy photo | Rachel Eisenberg

R.I.S.E. Program Manager Rachael Eisenberg said the legal system can be hard to navigate.

“A lot of times, the court process is confusing and it can be very long. … When you have to face an abuser, potentially that could be even dangerous, overwhelming … triggering,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg said R.I.S.E.’s legal advocacy helps by explaining legal processes, providing in-court support, connecting resources for survivors and submitting Personal Protection Order petitions.

For example, if a survivor wants to file that their PPO was violated, Eisenberg said R.I.S.E. will help them gather screenshots, write statements and submit evidence to the court. R.I.S.E. can also help survivors go to the police station or visit the hospital for medical care, she said. 

“There's a lot of different decisions that people are faced with, and that’s really overwhelming,” Eisenberg said. “I think that's the important part, to have an advocate with you. It could be things with custody. It could be things with what's going to be in their personal protection order, safety planning decisions. 

"It's just a lot of decisions (and) … it's really helpful to have someone explain those to you and present those different resources to you.”

Confidentiality - What will happen if I report to someone? 

Krysta Carabelli is the social crisis advocate for the city Division of Public Safety. 

There are several organizations that work with survivors in Mount Pleasant, each with different protocol for reporting sexual assault and domestic violence.  

Carabelli said R.I.S.E. does not automatically report anything a client says to the police.  

“I’m not going to tell the police a dang thing about anything I’m doing at R.I.S.E. with any of my clients unless that client explicitly says it’s OK to do so,” Carabelli said.       

Lopez said, as an example, if someone is considering suicide, R.I.S.E. will ask questions about whether the person has planned their suicide instead of immediately calling 911. If the person does have a plan, Lopez said R.I.S.E. advocates will contact emergency services and accompany people to the hospital.  

On CMU's campus, protocols are different. Faculty and staff are required to report sexual or gender-based misconduct to OCRIE via a CMU CARES report. Martinez said OCRIE is required to report crimes involving minors, threats of self harm or threats to others to CMUPD.  

Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates (SAPA) is a completely anonymous way for students, faculty and staff to get counseling and learn about resources for survivors. 

Related content:   
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  
Seven things to reconsider about domestic violence and sexual assault
Editorial: You are not alone  
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