CLEVELAND — I believe you.
These three simple words can transform the experiences of a rape survivor.
I believe you.
This simple statement has the ability to negate the shame and self-doubt that far too many survivors face when reporting their rape.
I believe you.
When heard, this chorus can redirect a rape survivor’s journey of recovery – from one of fear and humiliation to one of healing.
I believe you.
When sexual assault investigations start with these three words, survivors begin to find justice and offenders are more likely to be held accountable.
These words are powerful. They are free. They are the start of a radical change that is needed within the systems and agencies that exist to support rape survivors in our communities, including at the Cleveland Division of Police.
Believing survivors is the bedrock of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. No matter what one’s life circumstances may be or how long ago a survivor was hurt, we believe you.
The Plain Dealer’s “Case Closed” series, written by Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis, was a powerful, firsthand account of what happens in the absence of belief. This sequence documented the journey of Sandi Fedor, a grandmother who survived rape, as she navigated our criminal justice system. Sandi’s incredible courage to share her story is commendable.
While we know that Sandi’s experiences are hers alone, we also know that there are familiar themes and patterns in her story. She turned to law enforcement for help at one of the most vulnerable times in her life. In return, she was ignored. Her experiences were minimized. Sandi was not believed.
These patterns are not isolated to Cleveland. They play out every single day and affect far too many victims in our region and across our nation. What is unique is our local community’s level of awareness of these systemic problems and the lack of change that has transpired.
Nearly a decade ago, the world turned its eyes to Cleveland when police discovered 11 bodies on Imperial Avenue. These women were brutally murdered by Anthony Sowell, a convicted sex offender. Some of these attacks could have been prevented. However, our unwillingness to believe survivors resulted in a sex offender going unchecked and more women being raped and murdered.
We must improve.
We have the answers. In fact, we have had them for a decade. In 2010, a special commission assembled by Mayor Frank Jackson delivered recommendations for improvements. An external agency audited staffing levels in the Sex Crimes & Child Abuse Unit and recommended increases. Yet, nearly 10 years later, only a handful of these best practices have been implemented. This is not acceptable.
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center urges our city’s leaders to change that. Specifically, we call for the prioritization of the following improvements:
1. Increase staffing levels in the Sex Crimes &Child Abuse Unit.
2. Update policies and procedures to ensure survivors are believed and investigations are timely and thorough.
3. Ensure adequate training for all responding officers, investigators and supervisors.
4. Implement a case management system to track all police reports.
5. Commit to continuous improvement through the use of independent audits and case reviews.
To our city’s leaders: When you said any lapse in investigating sex crimes and child abuse cases was “egregious,” I believed you. When you said, “Sexual assault cases remain a high priority within the Division of Police,” I believed you. However, your actions have not supported your words and your lack of urgency has led to more people being hurt.
Now is the time to invest in improvements for survivors. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center welcomes the city’s partnership in improving our collective response. When we work together, meaningful change can happen. I believe that.
Sondra Miller is president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center receives modest federal funding in support of its partnership with the Cleveland Division of Police to provide services for survivors of rape and sexual abuse.
This opinion piece was published by Cleveland.com on October 4, 2019.