Looking through a trauma-informed lens: Expert says, like those in car accidents, sexual assault victims can remember events out of sequence or incorrectly
Tiffany Thiele posted on Facebook hours before her death that she was raped, and that prosecutors declined to file charges because of insufficient evidence.
However, what Thiele told an investigator with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office instead focuses on allegations that a boyfriend filmed her without her consent during sex, a report she filed states.
Lt. Nelson Resendes, with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, said Thiele’s report to his office “…did not mention sexual assault at all.”
No rape is alleged in the July 9, 2018, report. The man, interviewed by authorities, said he thought the allegations against him were “weird” because he and Thiele had watched the videos and discussed them. He’d since deleted the videos, and the investigator found none on his cell phone, the report states.
The investigation was forwarded to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office.
“The prosecutor who reviewed it rendered the opinion that a jury would not convict based on what was reported,” said David Tellman, the county’s chief assistant of the district attorney.
The man’s name is being withheld because no charges were brought against him.
Experts in the field say people should look at potential sexual assaults through a “trauma-informed lens.” Like people in car wrecks, victims of sexual assault can have trouble remembering the precise sequence of events or remember things incorrectly.
“The initial trauma affects the brain, and we don’t question the motives of car accident victims or question when folks in car accidents remember things later on,” said Amanda Lubold, sociologist and associate professor of sociology at Indiana State University. “The same is true for folks who are survivors of sexual assault.“
Donna Axton, professor of Psychology at Sierra Nevada University, said that those who work with rape victims know it’s not simple to report a sexual assault. Many victims may feel like they are “just being interviewed by somebody off the street that doesn’t understand — it’s very, very sensitive.”
Axton said she believes many survivors of sexual assault bear the brunt of their sexual violence, and that they often feel as though it becomes their own responsibility.
“Some victims also consent to one part of a sexual act, but not the whole thing, which is called deceit. It’s withholding information,” said Axton.
“Who wants to relive it in front of strangers?” she continued. “In front of people that you don’t know how they’re going to see it? Are they going to see you as a criminal? Are they going to see you as the victim of a crime? It’s very intimate, there is nothing more personal than that … Very rarely is it an immediate action of ‘I want to get help.’ It’s more of an immediate reaction of ‘Let me hide. Let me go inside and process this myself,’ which may take a long time.”
Lubold’s statements on why victims may be hesitant to report also aligned with Axton’s in that victims often do not want to be publicly identified.
“This could have an effect on the survivor’s job, family, reputation, or mental health … sexual assault is a trauma, and trauma takes time to process. In addition, survivors may be afraid of retaliation, or they may have had previous negative experiences with law enforcement, leading victims to believe their offender will not be prosecuted,” Lubold said.
Lubold said the post-sexual assault medical exam also feels intrusive to many victims.
Despite the obstacles to reporting these kinds of allegations, there is help.
For those living in the Truckee/Tahoe area, Sierra Community House holds a variety of services to support victims of sexual and domestic abuse, according to Executive Director Paul Bancroft.
Advocacy services are offered to victims so that they may have someone to support them through a sexual assault medical exam, as well as counseling, emergency shelter, food, clothing, and financial assistance. Sierra Community House also “…helps to navigate the system if (victims) are engaged with law enforcement or the hospital or the legal system … because a lot of that can be super overwhelming.” said Bancroft.
“Oftentimes, being with somebody helps. It’s listening, it’s believing, it’s validating, and it’s bearing witness to the trauma that somebody experienced.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about sexual assault. Often, when thinking about sexual assault, it’s the predatory behavior of a stranger jumping out at night from the bushes or a parking garage. More often the person causing harm is known to the victim — it’s an acquaintance, a relative, a partner, or a neighbor, said Bancroft.
Sierra Community House is a merger of four different groups, one of them being Tahoe Safe Alliance, which was born in the early 1980s due to community members feeling there was a need for a crisis line for sexual assault victims.
“People don’t always know that these services exist until something like this occurs and people start asking,” Bancroft said. “And this is an opportunity to raise awareness that these problems persist in Tahoe and that there are services that exist to address and support folks who are victimized in this way. We hear this narrative all the time that this stuff doesn’t happen in Tahoe, but where there are people there is sexual assault, there is domestic violence, there are other challenges that all exist in this beautiful place.”
Sierra Community House saw a 200% increase in calls to its helpline during the pandemic, which included domestic violence, sexual assault, and other mental health-related calls. Bancroft said the organization received 49 reports of people who experienced sexual assault in fiscal year 2020-21.
“Folks have to live through it multiple times as they go through it. They tell the story and relive the experience over and over, which is retraumatizing. It’s not an easy thing for folks to falsify or make up because it’s really difficult … The numbers are higher than what’s actually reported.”
The Sierra Community House helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-736-1060. It also offers support groups for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Elizabeth is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com
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