Rapists will have fewer ways to escape arrest if the Ashland Police Department has its way.
The department on Tuesday launched a new website, www.reportingoptions.org, that it hopes everyone — including sexual predators — will read. The goal is to prevent sexual assaults, and when they do occur, to allow victims to get information quickly, talk without feeling pressured, and provide evidence so offenders can be charged.
An Ashland mother, who asked not to be named, reviewed the new website with her daughters, ages 20 and 23.
"I think the anonymous option to report is a great idea, since young women will be more likely to share their experiences," the woman says. "Offering an option of delayed prosecution is also a plus so victims can report their experiences while the details are fresh in their minds and have an opportunity to gather themselves before any actions were taken."
The website, a project that took two years and was given no additional funds to complete, is part of the Ashland Police Department's larger campaign to increase sexual assault reporting by allowing victims or witnesses to ask questions anonymously and online, and wait up to 12 years to press charges.
The website explains three reporting options.
An "information only" report can be taken and victims are provided access to advocates and counseling. Victims, even those as young as 15, also receive free medical care without parents or guardians being notified, except in rare circumstances.
In a partial investigation, evidence is preserved in case it's needed in the future. In a complete investigation, suspects and witnesses are contacted and results may be submitted to the Jackson County District Attorney's Office for prosecution.
Through the website, the Ashland mother was able to get dozens of answers to such questions as "What is a rape exam?" and "What if I don't want anyone to know?" But she also appreciated that the phone number for an anonymous 24-hour crisis help line (541-779-4357) was listed and the Ashland police can be called at 541-482-5211.
"If there was a sexual assault to one of my daughters, I wouldn't be able to hold back the questions," she says. "I, like all parents I know, would have a complete meltdown. It would make sense that some young women would avoid telling their parents."
To ensure privacy while looking at the website on a computer (the website is not yet accessible on a mobile device), there is a tab to exit the site quickly.
In late December while finalizing the wording on the website, Detective Carrie Hull acknowledged that many victims hesitate to report a sexual assault because of shame, social stigma, and fear they will get in trouble or not be believed.
She shakes her head. "There is more false reporting of car thefts than sexual assault," she says.
A 27-year-old from Ashland who has a law degree and also asked not to be named found the website's content reassuring to victims who worry they will lose control of the process.
"A friend who reported a rape years ago said it was scary not knowing the next step," she says. "This spells it out and you can proceed at your own pace."
Susan Moen, executive director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team, worked with the APD, Community Works and other local advocacy groups to prepare information for the website.
"Getting victims the medical attention and emotional support they need comes first for all of us," says Moen. "If the victim wants to report, we will do everything possible to build a strong case against the perpetrator while continuing to honor the victim's needs."
The advocacy groups also provide ongoing sexual assault awareness education for students, and restaurant and bar staffs, and sexual violence prevention training for the community.
The combined efforts are starting to pay off. Reported sexual assaults rose from 25 in 2009 to 43 in 2012.
Still, only 15 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported, according to Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness.
Ninety percent of sexual assaults are by repeat offenders, and the average offender has committed 5.8 assaults before being identified, he says.
These figures can turn around, Hull believes.
"It starts with increased reporting," she says, since police have a better chance of identifying serial offenders if more victims report crimes even when they don't press charges.
A 33-year-old professional who lives and works in Ashland saw the website and thinks it will encourage more women to report.
"I hope that we can make this subject one that is talked about more openly so that girls and women feel safe acknowledging when an assault has occurred without feeling like it's their fault," she says. "I think that blaming one's self is the biggest hurdle in the entire process."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com.