For a better experience please change your browser to CHROME, FIREFOX, OPERA or Internet Explorer.

Conversations about intercourse assault wanted to assist others, native advocates say

Michelle Johnson spent one of the last days of the month educating people about sexual assault each April and visiting businesses on Durango Main Avenue to raise awareness.

“You may find the conversation uncomfortable,” said Johnson, a victim attorney for the Sexual Assault Services Organization. “But we have to get through this because it’s happening in our church, believe me.”

One in two women and one in four men in Colorado has experienced sexually violent crimes in their lifetime, according to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. SASO handled 67 sexual assault-related cases from January to March. The number represents an increase compared to the number of cases during the pandemic when coverage decreased.

Johnson and other service providers say public awareness is vital. Johnson speaks from experience: It wasn’t until the #MeToo era, when much of the nation was openly discussing sexual violence, that she started talking about her own experiences.

“It’s been almost 40 years that I’ve been walking around feeling like something is wrong with me or that I’ve done something bad,” she said. “That’s why I want to keep talking about it.”

Johnson was raped by her best friend’s brother when he was 16. As an adult, she served in the military. A man sexually assaulted her in a field in 1982, an act that was only stopped when someone overheard her cries for help. She was sexually assaulted twice in the military and then persecuted within four years.

“When someone says they were raped, the immediate thing is often, ‘Well, what did you do to them? What did you think Asked Johnson. “That’s the responsibility of the person who was raped, and it’s not their fault, it’s the person who does it.”

Michelle Johnson, victim lawyer and volunteer with the Durango Sexual Assault Services Organization, sits with her service dog, Romeo. Romeo is trained to help her with her post-traumatic stress disorder, which she was diagnosed with following sexual assault.

Jerry McBride / Durango Herald

Conversations about sexual assault are necessary to help others, local advocates say

Michelle Johnson, victim lawyer and volunteer with the Durango Sexual Assault Services Organization, sits with her service dog, Romeo. Romeo is trained to help her with her post-traumatic stress disorder, which she was diagnosed with following sexual assault.

Jerry McBride / Durango Herald

Instead, she wants more attention, like educational programs in schools and colleges or anonymous reporting options.

“Just putting the story out there so you can talk about it and deal with those feelings and heal makes all the difference,” said Johnson.

In 2020, a total of 29 incidents of sexual assault were reported to Durango Police Department, the most common of which was illegal sexual contact or petting. The department reported similar numbers over the past few years, 29 incidents in 2019 and 28 in 2018.

Service providers at both SASO and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) program at Mercy Regional Medical Center said fewer cases were reported in 2020.

People at home were likely self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic or unwilling to come to the hospital for fear of contracting the coronavirus.

During this time it became more difficult to stand up for people who had experienced sexual assault. SASO advocates could not appear in courtrooms or at doctor’s visits with their clients while clients needed more mental health resources and thorough case management, said Laura Latimer, executive director of SASO.

“To witness the trauma of being there in person and offering support is enormous,” she said. “It is important to be really present and to show solidarity with someone.”

The SANE nurses are also exhausted or burned out, Bethany Bernal told SANE. She said SANE had around 59 cases in 2020 compared to 80 in 2019.

Since the program began in 2002, the number of cases has increased by 500% – which she attributed to more staff and awareness raising among the population.

“The most important thing is that patients understand their reporting options,” said Bernal.

Proponents of the victims say that people may be reluctant to speak to the police or that speaking to the police can make the trauma worse.

And the lawyers are a benefit to the police, Durango Police Department Sgt. Bobby Taylor said in an email to The Durango Herald.

“Whenever possible, we try to coordinate with these advocates during the investigation process to minimize the number of times the victim has to relive the trauma of telling a stranger what happened to them,” said Taylor.

Michelle Johnson, right, an advocate for the victims, meets with David Latham, canteen manager at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango, and Josie Latham, auxiliary member, Tuesday to discuss how the club can help make sexual assault better known do .

Jerry McBride / Durango Herald

Conversations about sexual assault are necessary to help others, local advocates say

Ep 210509937

Michelle Johnson, right, an advocate for the victims, meets with David Latham, canteen manager at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango, and Josie Latham, auxiliary member, Tuesday to discuss how the club can help make sexual assault better known do .

Jerry McBride / Durango Herald

DPD’s first priority is to make sure the person is in a safe place. If a patrolman learns of a sexual crime while responding to an initial report, a detective takes over from there, he said.

Everyone needs to have conversations about sexual assault or other related crimes like stalking, sexual harassment and rape, Bernal said.

“Especially for people who may be witnessing something that is going on. It’s important that you stand up and be a bystander, saying something, ”she said. “That could help prevent someone from making the wrong decision and raping someone. You could offer someone a safe ride home. Small interventions can make a big difference. “

Such conversations can contain frequently asked questions or misunderstandings.

For example, most sexual assault perpetrators aren’t strangers – it’s more likely to involve rape of acquaintances, Latimer said.

Nurses with the SANE program at Mercy can assess injuries and, if the person has had a past attack, whether the injuries match that history. However, they cannot tell if someone was raped on the exam. The goal is to make sure the person is healthy and safe, Bernal said.

Johnson said she even heard frequent misunderstandings while attending court hearings as an attorney for SASO clients.

“It’s the whole idea that the victim will be brought to justice. They do it to get attention or be asked why they were drinking, ”Johnson said. “That opened my eyes.”

The percentage of people making a wrong report is low, but often people hear about it and are even more scared to get in touch.

“That’s why they don’t get in touch: they’re afraid of what someone is going to think,” said Johnson. “In reality, you’ve either been raped, you know someone who has, or they didn’t tell you. The statistics are high. “

Johnson was on Main Avenue last week as part of Denim Day awareness campaign named after a sexual assault case in Italy. The court ruled the person must have been ready because their jeans were too tight to be removed without their help, according to the Denim Day website.

Johnson wanted to start talks. There is so much shame and blame, she said. But talking about the problem can be the beginning of a healthy healing.

“If someone tells someone they have been sexually assaulted, believe them,” said Johnson. “Nobody wants to go through the hospital, the backlash, or a court hearing.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

Top