State sexual violence coalition sees more clients in #MeToo era

In the year since the #MeToo movement began — the phrase people use to share their own stories after allegations surfaced against former film producer Harvey Weinstein — the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence has seen a 20 percent jump in clients, Executive Director Laura Cordes said.

Cordes said the trend only has sped up since Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh, the newest Supreme Court justice, of sexually assaulting her when she was 15.

Ford, one of three women to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault, went public with her allegations last month and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27 as more than 20 million people watched, debating her story and in some cases threatening her life.

Senators confirmed Kavanugh by a vote of 50 to 48 after a limited FBI investigation — officials interviewed neither Kavanaugh nor Ford — found no corroboration of Ford’s allegations. Kavanaugh has denied all allegations against him.

“Millions of people have been triggered by this,” Cordes said. “They’ve been having to relive memories of their own assault and what they endured when they disclosed to a friend or someone in a position to help who did not believe them, questioned their motivations or failed to protect them from further harm.”

In the United States, one in three women and one in six men experience sexual violence at some point, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Cordes said her 36-year-old coalition has served more than 8,000 children, adolescents and adults this fiscal year. Since Ford came forward, she said, the alliance has seen a “dramatic jump” in hotline calls, whether from former clients or people who’ve never shared their stories.

In response, some of the alliance’s nine member centers have launched support groups for survivors of sexual violence who are disheartened by the discourse around Ford’s allegations, including President Donald Trump’s mocking of her testimony.

The alliance, along with NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, also hosted a rally in New Haven for survivors and their allies this past weekend.

Cordes said her alliance hopes to “build communities one at a time where people value respect and the safety of others.”

“Believe survivors,” she said. “If someone hasn’t disclosed to you, chances are they probably will. ‘I’m sorry that happened to you’ is something that so few survivors ever hear, and it wasn’t their fault.”

According to the alliance’s website, about 2 percent of sexual assault allegations are false, which is the same rate of false reporting seen with other violent crimes.

Coming forward

Nazmie Batista, associate director of residential programs and counseling services for New London-based nonprofit Safe Futures, said survivors of sexual violence delay or don’t end up coming forward for many reasons.

Coming forward often is embarrassing and uncomfortable, Batista said, and in some cases may subject the survivor to a lengthy examination of his or her life. Many people — especially those whose abusers are public figures — fear they won’t be believed, and many blame themselves for what happened. Still others worry their academic or professional lives could suffer — especially if they’re accusing a boss or professor.

Herself a survivor of sexual assault, Batista came forward when federal investigators tracked her down around 2012. They were investigating Luis “Tito” Morales — later convicted of transporting girls between states and having sex with them in 2009 and 2010 — and somehow learned he had assaulted Batista years earlier, when she was 12.

Now 32, Batista said she was 26 when she testified in the case. Already working with Safe Futures and 14 years removed from the repeated assaults, Batista thought she was well equipped to tell her story.

“I remember sitting there in front of his lawyer and I froze,” she said. “He asked me questions like, how come you remember how many steps it took for him to get to you but not the color of his underwear? Things like time frames I couldn’t remember, or the amount of times it happened.”

Flustered, Batista said she cried during her testimony and vomited immediately afterward.

“I felt disappointed because I thought I failed other people,” she said. “I had this opportunity to speak out and I messed up. There’s not a thing or person that can prepare you for that experience.”

Batista said she was involved with the case for about two years — another reason people may not want to come forward.

“You have to commit to this process,” she said. “You could be in a great place in life, and suddenly you’re talking about this thing you haven’t been talking about for years.”

Morales, who gained notoriety as a gangster in Hartford in the 1980s before declaring himself a changed man and founding a church a decade later, was sentenced to life in prison in 2013.

Batista, who said she works through the trauma of her experience daily, only recently began speaking publicly about the case. She encouraged other survivors to share their stories when possible, or to consider volunteering, marching or otherwise showing solidarity.

“For me, coming out as a sexual assault victim was not about me,” she said. “It was about other people and creating a space where other people could do the same. I hear all this talk around creating safe spaces and environments, and while that’s helpful and beneficial, if we are not safe people … it doesn’t matter how pretty the room is.”

Call 1 (888) 999-5545 for the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence’s confidential, 24/7 English hotline, or 1 (888) 568-8332 for Spanish.

l.boyle@theday.com

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