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Indiana Lawmakers Set To Act On Teen Sexual Assault Epidemic

The rate of sexual assault among teenage girls in Indiana is 17.3 percent, compared to the national average of 10.5 percent.

girl in hallway

Photo: WTIU

Shadows Of Innocence: Sexual Assault Among Indiana's Youth helped start a discussion about sexual assault, particularly among teenage girls.

Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, is proposing the state take a deeper look into why sex crimes and even crimes of domestic violence aren’t reported.

Hale calls the problem of sexual assault, the most urgent problem facing Indiana.

“We have 17.3 percent of girls in Indiana who have been raped or sexually assaulted before they graduate high school but yet we don’t know why,” Hale says. “We don’t know if this is a problem in families, if this is a problem in schools, is this a rural problem is it an urban problem? We don’t know where it’s happening or why it’s happening and we can’t create the right programs or policies and laws unless we find out why this is happening.”

Indiana ranks second to worst in the country for the number of sexual assaults among high school aged girls. It’s a story WTIU News first brought you in February in our documentary, Shadows of Innocence Sexual Assault Among Indiana’s Youth, and Hale says the documentary was one of the reasons she drafted her proposal.

Victims Often Blame Themselves

The story of a 13-year-old girl in Indiana, who is remaining anonymous, is heart-wrenching but not a-typical.

For eight years, she was assaulted by her brothers.

“Well I didn’t really know,” she says. “I kind of felt like it was wrong, but I wasn’t really sure.”

Through all the years of being raped, she never told anyone.

“I more of just closed my eyes and waited for it to be over,” she recalls.

Her mother caught her brothers one day while they were assaulting her, and that’s how it finally stopped.

The girl said she worried people in her family would get angry if she reported her brothers, and hers is just one of many reasons it can take years for sexual assault victims to come forward.

In Indiana only 15 percent of sexual assaults, attempted rapes, and rapes are reported to the legal authorities.

“They feel ashamed about it,” says Julia Heiman, director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. “They don’t feel it’s easy to talk to anyone about it. They feel like people won’t believe them. They usually don’t go to police. Women are more likely to blame themselves. They were to blame. Did they not say no earlier enough? Did they not say no hard enough, strongly enough? Did they not struggle enough? All these questions come up.”

All those questions were going through Malea Crosby’s head after a high school friend raped her two months before her 17th birthday.

“It was such a painful and scary experience that I just left,” Crosby says. “That was the only option I think at that time that my body had. Maybe my mind had to just retreat from it. And then I have kind of now realizing that the last 16 years I have been really disconnected and things happen around me and I don’t remember certain periods. At times I feel numb – a lot of the time I don’t really feel anything.”

Identifying A ‘Comprehensive Approach’

Crosby and several other sexual assault awareness advocates joined Hale for today’s statehouse presentation. Examining the state’s policies on sexual violence were one of the goals outlined in the policy brief that inspired Shadows of Innocence.

The study by researchers at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy urged lawmakers to work with stakeholders to assess the status of sexual violence across the state and to gather accurate data indicating the scope of the problem that could be used to inform policy decisions.

The study highlighted states that had good sexual violence prevention policies on the books. While noting that policies are only a part of the solution, the report’s authors encouraged leaders in Indiana to learn from these other states.

“I think the interesting thing in these other model states – Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas is that it wasn’t one policy lever they tried to pull,” says Jonathan Plucker, the former CEEP director. “It was really them sitting down, looking across all their existing laws and policies and regulations and really coming up with a comprehensive approach to see if they are actually solving this problem.”

Rep. Hale’s proposal could be considered a first step. The committee members asked her to submit a full report to them no later than Nov. 30 for review.  According to Sen. Michael Young, the committee will revisit the issue in December.

Hale says she hopes the committee’s work will result in policy, programming and law that will better protect children from sexual crimes.

“This is one step in a larger solution. There are a lot of people that have to be engaged to come up with a solution,” she says. “We can only go up from here, and I’m feeling very confident and very positive that we can do something positive for our young girls.”

Watch Shadows of Innocence

Watch Shadows Of Innocence With Extended Discussion on PBS. See more from WTIU Documentaries.

Sara Wittmeyer

Sara Wittmeyer is the News Bureau Chief for WFIU and WTIU. Sara has more than a decade of experience as a news reporter and previously served with KBIA at the University of Missouri, WNKU at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY, and at WCPO News in Cincinnati.

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