Blythe Chapman has given up on writing letters to the editor.
“Every once in a while, intense details end up in the paper,” the River Bridge Regional Center executive director said of sexual assault reports. “The last couple of times it’s happened, I just kind of let it go. You just feel like you’re beating your head against a wall.”
Being in the leadership role at River Bridge, a child advocacy center in Glenwood Springs, gives Chapman a particularly nuanced perspective on how public discourse about sexual assault affects victims.
Retraumatization is a buzzword in the recovery community, and it’s the centerpiece of a lot of best practices conversations, whether regarding media coverage or internal communications within advocacy and prevention organizations.
“I’ve written probably a handful of letters to the editor over the years over this same issue,” Chapman said. “It is public information and reporters are able to gather a lot of detail. From our kids victims’ perspectives, it’s a reloss of power and a retraumatization to them when they see it in the paper — even if their name’s not in it.”
But, she acknowledges, it’s a fine line in balancing how much detail risks retraumatizing a victim and how little may risk the stability of a victim’s case, especially in an era of social media.
“We have to get it out there, absolutely. We need to be reporting on it; we need the community to know that it’s happening — but we’ve got to do it in a way that’s not retraumatizing our kids,” she said. “I think the details of child sexual assault is just really, really dangerous. I don’t know how to do that well.”
And of course, the best intentions can still create pathways to undesired results; there’s a whole adage to that effect. That can be especially true when dealing with the written word, Chapman emphasized.
“The sad thing is even if we think the community is going to read those details and interpret it the way we do, it isn’t necessarily the way they’re going to interpret it,” she said, adding that she’s recently heard of what she described as victim blaming after local newspapers reported a plea agreement for a convicted sexual assault.
The Aspen Daily Newswas one of those newspapers. In that coverage, one victim had self-identified publicly in several media outlets — and in doing so, successfully encouraged other victims to come forward in what became crucial evidence in securing convictions. After an unsuccessful attempt to reach the victim, the newspaper decided to publish existing public record, believing that giving the victim the last word on such a story would further that empowerment.
It had the opposite effect.
“I think what it comes down to for victims of crime in general, in that situation, they have lost control of what’s going on in their lives,” Chapman said. “Although she was speaking out and saying these things and it seemed like she should be comfortable with that, I think seeing it in the paper without knowing it was going to be there felt like a loss of power.”
Consent — or lack thereof — is the cornerstone of sexual assault discourse, said Shannon Meyer, executive director of Response, an Aspen-based nonprofit. And it’s a delicate matter when it comes to verbal discussion, too.
So when Response partnered with Writ Large’s Alya Howe to present five survivors speaking publicly in an event titled “Our Response: Survivor Stories” at the Wheeler Opera House last year, Meyer thought it would likely be a one-time performance.
“I thought it was a fluke that there were five brave people willing to share their stories,” she said.
And yet, this year, the show will return Oct. 17 to the more intimate bar lounge of the Wheeler. Tickets are $25 and likely will include a musical performance as well, Meyer continued. Still, the Response team proceeded with caution when approaching would-be speakers.
“In every step we take, we want to be trauma-informed. Even asking victims to tell their stories risks retraumatizing them, so we have to be very careful,” she said.
To that end, organizers only approached survivors who had otherwise expressed an openness about their experiences.
“We believe survivors on their word and on their terms,” Meyer said.
The October event allows survivors an opportunity to share their experiences in just that context, Chapman noted.
“It’s an empowering process of getting in front of people and saying what happened and how you found your strength,” she said.
The event coincides with October being domestic violence awareness month, which is appropriate to Response’s mission, which Meyer described as “twofold.”
The organization supports victims, but also seeks to end domestic violence outright, she said. October serves as an opportunity to raise awareness, but of course domestic and sexual violence aren’t limited to one month of the year — and when it does occur, it often goes unreported, especially when the victims are minors.
Chapman has included the statistics in every letter she’s written to nearly every major newspaper in the Roaring Fork Valley over the years.
“National research tells us that most children do not tell of abuse while they are still children. In fact, only 10 percent of children disclose while the abuse is still happening (Sauders), 43 percent of children initially deny allegations of abuse (Lawson & Chaffin) and 75 percent of children don’t tell within the first year (Elliot & Briere),” she wrote.
But organizations like River Bridge and Response work doggedly to ensure victims have access to information and support.
“The good news is that we have the resources in our community to help children and families and assist investigators and prosecutors,” Chapman’s letters continue. “In addition, we provide community-based child abuse prevention and education. You can reach professionals at River Bridge at (970) 945-5195.”
Additionally, Response operates a 24-hour crisis helpline at (970) 925-7233.
On Monday, both Henry Henley, 18, and Keegan Callahan, 21, will be sentenced in Pitkin County District Court.
Henley pleaded guilty to felonious sexual assault and second-degree assault, a class 4 felony. His plea agreement dictates that he be sentenced to 16 years in Youthful Offender System, a maximum security prison in Pueblo, with 11 years suspended. In addition to the five-year prison term, he will get probation of 20 years to life, served concurrently with the prison sentence.
Callahan pleaded guilty to felonious sexual exploitation of a child and second-degree assault. His plea agreement mandates a 14-year prison sentence with the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Both will register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.