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'Know that we believe you': Utah advocates, sex assault survivors honored

State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks during a press conference to kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.

State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks during a press conference to kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year, 1,029 sexual assault kits were administered to Utah patients across 23 sexual assault nurse examiner programs — a number that likely represents just 10% of people who experienced sexual violence.

The grim statistic was read to an audience Wednesday on the state Capitol steps by Susan Chasson, the sexual assault nurse examiner program manager at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Recognized on the first Wednesday of April, the national event "Start by Believing Day" kicked off Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

"We're working hard, through awareness events like this, to make sure that the examination numbers go up because we know the survivors are out there and they're just not getting the help that they need," Chasson said.

Utah's rates of sexual violence have remained consistently higher than the national average throughout the years. One in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence during their lives, according to state data.

Rape is the only violent crime in which Utah ranks higher than the national average, with other violent crimes such as homicide or aggravated assault historically half to three times lower than the average.

Despite concerning statistics, some say bills surrounding child sexual abuse or sexual violence seemed to stall in the Utah Legislature in previous years. When HB286, a bill relating to child sexual abuse prevention training in public schools, passed the Legislature in 2014, sexual violence advocates say they began to see a shift.

To build on that momentum, advocates asked Romero in 2015 to sponsor a joint resolution — Start by Believing Day — which was passed by the Utah Legislature. It was soon adopted by the End Violence Against Women Coalition and quickly spread nationwide and worldwide.

"I wanted to make sure when we ran this resolution that it was not just a resolution and we recognized it during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but I wanted it to have some bearings and some substances and meaning," Romero said.

The day marked on the first Wednesday in April is meant to facilitate conversations surrounding policies and needed changes, but also serves as a recognition to those serving.

"We have people on the front line working every day to make sure that survivors feel like they're believed. That survivors feel like they get the support they need to heal and move forward and that people like me pass policy that's meaningful. That is going to move us forward," Romero said.

Five awardees were recognized for contributions to their communities and serving survivors of sexual violence.

Among those was state Sen. Jani Iwamoto who worked on legislation following the 2018 murder of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey.

Some of those bills include SB13, which allows internal investigations into law enforcement officers to continue even after they've left a police agency, and SB163, which requires campuses to provide a live dashboard of crimes and where they occurred. Iwamoto has also sponsored legislation instructing the Utah State Board of Regents to study a variety of issues related to campus safety law enforcement.

"I think our state has come a long way, our legislators have come a long way," said Iwamoto.

While the state has perhaps progressed, some said it isn't enough. Sitting among the crowd was Jessica Eichbauer, a victim of sexual violence.

"They're clout chasing," Eichbauer said. "It's frustrating. I'm here because I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but also I want to be heard."

Eichbauer's frustration was clear when after one awardee encouraged victims to come forward.

"As a law enforcement officer that has worked with victims for a good portion of his career, I just would encourage any victim that has been victimized, that is afraid, to come forward. Please come forward, talk to us, we are here. Our ears are open," Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Jason Randall said. "We do believe that we will do everything we can to help you get whatever justice we can, whatever that justice looks like."

Eichbauer said despite coming forward years ago, she wasn't believed and never received justice.

"This was a long time ago so it's upsetting that I wasn't believed. I mean, it just makes me feel like everyone else was and I wasn't," Eichbauer said. "I see all these people like doing such a great job in different counties — I believe that they're really helping people — but here in Salt Lake, they did not believe me. They were nothing like any of these people."

From 2012 to 2017, only 8% of sexual assault cases in Salt Lake County were prosecuted, according to research conducted by BYU nursing professor Dr. Julie Valentine. Prosecution rates varied by county throughout the state, but all rank considerably low.

The low prosecution rates contrast with the rising need.

"We have a lot of ground to cover. We have had our numbers increase 25% this last year in hospital calls," said awardee Lori Jenkins. "We've also had a crisis call to increase. There needs to be so much more done."

In her closing remarks, Romero assured the crowd there is more to come.

"I'm still committed to these issues and as I go into this next general session, there will definitely be more bills," Romero said. "But really just know that we believe you — especially to survivors out there — that we believe you and we want to make sure that you get the services that you need to move forward in your life."

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Ashley Fredde covers human services, minority communities and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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