By CRISTINA JANNEY
Although domestic violence and rape numbers are up in Ellis County, in part due to what local officials say are more victims reporting these crimes, those who aid victims still say the crimes are widely underreported.
Domestic violence reports in Ellis County jumped from 103 in 2017 to 167 in 2018. Ellis County experienced 150 incidents in 2106. The majority of the reports were in the city of Hays.
Reported incidents of rape more than doubled between 2016 and 2018 going from 6 in 2016 to 13 in 2018 in Ellis County. There were 10 reported rapes in Ellis County in 2017.
Jennifer Hecker, executive director of Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, said she thought the increases are a result of more people reporting the crimes.
More people are also seeking services from Options, which provides crisis intervention, counseling, shelter and victims advocacy services. The number of survivors of domestic violence Options served grew by 384 percent in the last three years.
More reports can be a good thing
Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler said he sees the increase in reports as a good thing.
Although both Options and law enforcement are seeing more victims, Hecker said domestic violence and sexual assaults are still underreported.
Scheibler said more reports mean law enforcement officials have more opportunities to hold perpetrators responsible and more opportunities to interact with victims and refer them to services that can help such as Options.
"The overwhelming majority of rape and domestic violence cases are never reported," Scheibler said. "Law enforcement is never given the opportunity to investigate those. We have to get people to make that initial report for us to be successful in holding people accountable for their actions.
"I am happy we are seeing the numbers are increasing. I suspect it is because of educational programs. We have a long way to go."
The Ellis County Sex Trafficking and Domestic Violence Strategic Doing Committee is applying for a grant to support a lethality program.
This would include training for law enforcement officers on questions to ask domestic violence victims. These questions would include things such as is there a firearm in the home, has the violence happened before, has the victim been choked.
This would not only help the officers in their investigation, but also help inform the victim, Sheibler said.
"We want to make better use of [the questionnaire] so we can better educate the victim of domestic violence — truly how dangerous their situation is — and encourage them to get that assistance from Options and encourage them to get out of this relationship if that is what they have to do," Scheibler said. "[We want to] get them to understand this is not a situation that is going to get better by itself. Most likely this will continue to get worse."
Scheibler said domestic violence victims on average experience five or more violent incidents before they report to the police. He said it takes a lot of courage for a victim to come forward and the officers need to make victims feel comfortable and they will be believed.
More victims dying
Unfortunately, domestic violence can turn deadly. The report also shed light on a disturbing trend in these statistics.
Jana's Campaign was founded after the murder of Hays native Jana Mackey by an ex-boyfriend in 2008.
Kaiti Dinges, Jana's Campaign executive director, said the number of relationship homicides since Jana's death in 2008 has increased substantially. In 2008, 19 deaths were due to domestic violence. In 2018, 37 deaths were attributed to domestic violence. Twenty-six of those deaths — about 70 percent — involved guns.
The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, provided $1.6 billion toward the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It also imposed mandatory restitution and allowed women to seek relief in civil court for cases not prosecuted in criminal court.
The act initially decreased gender-based violence by almost 50 percent, Dinges said. However, in recent years, those numbers nationwide are creeping back up — specifically among youth 11 to 17.
"If we start talking about these and continue the conversation, we can ultimately prevent the violence from ever starting," Dinges said.
#MeToo moves the needle
Dinges and Hecker both said they thought the #MeToo Movement has been a factor in victims reporting gender-based crimes.
"When it comes to sexual assault, I also feel that more people are more comfortable coming forward and reporting. I think a lot of that is due to the #MeToo Movement," she said.
"The atmosphere we have around these issues is expanding. More people are more comfortable talking about them, but it is going to take some time. The only way we can really create change is if we continue to have these conversations, and provide services to those who are affected by domestic violence or sexual assault."
Hecker said she also thought the increased awareness surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault sparked by the #MeToo movement is causing more people to report the crimes.
"I think there has been so much community awareness," she said. "The #MeToo Movement has really been able to educate the community and individual people about what sexual assault is. Often people don't realize that is what has happened to them. They didn't have a name for it.
"That movement has helped give people the vocabulary and the context to know what happened, and it has also helped them know how to move forward and report."
Options mobile unit
Options is developing strategies to deal with the influx of survivors needing assistance. The agency is raising funds to purchase a new mobile advocacy vehicle. A $134,000 motorhome would be fitted to be used as a mobile Options office.
Options needs to raise about $60,000 more to purchase and outfit the mobile unit.
"Often, one of the reasons people don't come in to seek services from us is because transportation is a real barrier, particularly in a real rural area where there is very, very limited public transportation," Hecker said.
Although more people are reporting domestic violence, rape and stalking to law enforcement and more survivors are seeking help from Options, the number of Protection from Abuse filings in Ellis County has remained almost unchanged since 2002.
"I think there is fear of retribution from the perpetrator," Hecker said. "This might set them off. This might push them over the edge and really they just want to be away and be done with it. Sometimes that is why victims choose not to pursue a protection from abuse order because there is fear it might incite their abusers even more."
Hecker said she was concerned the number of violations of protection from abuse orders increased. Ellis County went from 19 violations of protection from abuse orders to 31 in 2018.
Scheibler said this may also be a positive number. He said those reports allow police officers to enforce the orders.
Hecker and Scheibler both said they still think protection orders are a good tool in protecting victims from their abusers.
Jana's Campaign's goal is to stop violence before it starts. They target middle school and high school students for education programs.
"We do school presentations talking about what are unhealthy behaviors. What are the warning signs that we should be looking for? There are patterns of unhealthy behaviors. It is not always one argument on occasion. It is a series of unhealthy behaviors that are occurring."
Hecker noted the report helped break a myth about sexual assault and rape. Many of the education programs are centered around protection from attackers who are strangers.
However, the Kansas statistics indicate 80 percent of the reported rapes in the 2018 were committed by people the victims knew.
"We really need to be developing effective rape prevention programs that stop the perpetrator from committing the rape," she said. "Telling someone not to walk alone, and always have a wing man and not drink a drink they haven't seen be opened — that doesn't stop a perpetrator from committing the rape. All it does is reduce the risk to the victim. That is not rape prevention. That is risk reduction."
Both Dinges and Hecker noted bystanders can be important in preventing rapes. Jana's campaign educates youth on bystander intervention.
Options is fundraiser for a new program called the Safe Bar Alliance. Training will be offered to bar and bar and grill staff on how to spot predatory behavior and to respond safely to harassing behavior.
They will learn when to call the police, when to have a friend intervene, when to call Options and how to get a victim help.
"When you see something, say something," Hecker said. "Unfortunately as a culture, I think we've lost that."
The program will also help bar owners and managers look at the physical layout of their bars, such as blind spots and lighting. Participating bars will receive window clings.
"Alcohol is unfortunately used as a weapon in many sexual assaults, Hecker said. ...
"Drinking does not cause rape. It doesn't cause people to rape, but it is a tool that perpetrators use."
Stalking numbers up
Protection from stalking orders have also jumped in Ellis County. Protection from stalking orders went from 40 in 2016 to 44 in 2017 to 61 in Ellis County in 2018.
Dinges noted Jana Mackey was stalked before she was killed. Jana's campaign seeks to educate youth on dangers of stalking as well.
"Social media and technology has made it very easy for people to stalk anyone because we can look at tag locations whether we are on Facebook or Instagram and we can tag who we are with as well," Dinges said.
"If someone is constantly checking up on you online on social media, that can also be considered stalking."
A photo used for this story came from https://www.canstockphoto.com/.