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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
HomeNewsArchivesSexual Assault in the V.I.: Part 1

Sexual Assault in the V.I.: Part 1

April is national Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The two crimes often intersect. Here in the Virgin Islands, Gov. John deJongh Jr., in partnership with local sexual assault service providers, declared April Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The Source takes a three-part look at sexual assault in the territory.
Close to Home, A Growing Problem
April 27, 2008 — One sure sign is shaking, uncontrollable shaking, according to Tina Gillespie. Leslye Webb said, along with that there's the rocking — demonstrating as she clasps her arms around her chest and rocks back and forth, back and forth.
Gillespie and Webb recounted what they typically observe of victims of sexual assault. Gillespie is an attorney for Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, and Webb is the crime victim advocate on St. Thomas for the V.I. Police Department. She's often among the first people a victim sees after reporting an incident of sexual assault.
Sometimes they are seen at the hospital, following a rape. Other times, it's at a counseling center, perhaps a home, maybe years after the abuse started, but the victim has only just come forward. No matter where it is, there's plenty more to be found.
"If we see 50 rape victims a year," said Clema S. Lewis, co-director of the Women's Coalition of St. Croix, "there were three or four times that number who have never come for help." The Women's Coalition is a non-profit organization dedicated to ending violence against women, men and children.
According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the country's largest anti-sexual assault organization, for every two victims who do seek services, three don't. Sexual assault occurs every two minutes in the United States to one out of every six women, and to one in 33 men, says RAINN.
Evidence of sexual assault in the Virgin Islands is more anecdotal than data-driven, and a great deal of abuse remains underground, shrouded in shame or protected by what service providers call the "what happens at home, stays at home" rule. Nevertheless, abuse of children in the territory is increasing, and/or the reporting of the problem is on the rise.
The latest data from the U.S. Virgin Islands Kids Count Data Book 2006 cites a 28 percent increase over the previous year in cases of child physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect reported to the Department of Human Services. That compares to a slight decline nationally of less than one percent. St. Croix referrals grew by 33 percent; St. Thomas-St. John referrals increased by 16.4 percent.
Kids Count, funded by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, puts the actual number of child sexual abuse cases at 48 territory-wide for its most recent reporting year. Kids Count also echoes what Lewis said, that abuse is "routinely under-reported."
Shedding light on sexual assault in hopes of easing the inherent shame victims feel and supporting them as they expose their perpetrator — usually someone they know, and in many cases, a family member — are critical in helping curb the crime, according to counselors and caseworkers.

A Chameloen-Like Crime That Adapts
Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse — which implies repeated assaults — are most frequently female, but the crime knows no boundaries in terms of gender, age, economics, or social or ethnic background.
"We always think the victim of sexual assault is someone who doesn't look like me, who doesn't have the lifestyle I have," explained Hadiya Silcott, a social worker at the Family Resource Center on St. Thomas, an agency that cares for crime victims, particularly victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. "But in fact, a sexual assault victim can be anyone, no matter how rich you are, no matter how poor you are. It could easily be you."
Sometimes the assault is insidious. Like that experienced by Alicia, who asked that her real name not be used.
Tall, with a confident smile and charisma to match her absorbing good looks, Alicia, now in her late 20s, said it took her years to realize she was a sexual abuse victim. It started, she said, with watching her single mother having sex with an assortment of different men.
"I had a whole warped sense of that, and when I was younger, I got in a whole lot of relationships…having sex just to have sex, to fill the void," Alicia said.
It led to name calling in school, "being looked at differently by the community," and eventually, she said, losing all control. "I didn't have any real voice for myself. I had to give it up because (my boyfriend) said so. I didn't realize it was abusive until years later."
For other women, the realization is more dramatic.
Alrick Brooks of the Department of Human Services on St. Thomas said he averages about nine sexual assault cases per year as the program administrator for the Criminal Victims Compensation Commission.
"The unfortunate thing is that the sexual abuse always seems to go over the top," observed Brooks. "It's not as simple as a little sexual encounter. It usually has physical abuse to it. The last case I worked on, she was held there about five hours and got raped six consecutive times, and then she got beat up really bad — rib damage and so forth. An ex-boyfriend."
The Devil You Know
According to national rape statistics from RAINN, the average profile of a rapist goes something like this. He's 31, he's white, and about a quarter of rapists are married. In a third of rapes, the perpetrator is drinking. National statistics from the Women’s Coalition say one third of sexual offenders were abused as children.
The coalition says offenders are driven by various motives, power being foremost, either as a way to prop up a flimsy ego or to satiate a huge one. Anger is another motivator — either retaliatory or as an excited response to pain. Finally, the opportunistic offender typically has a criminal history.
Sexual assault caseworkers said that while it's always important to be aware of one's surroundings, chances are, the person most likely to attack is not hiding in the bushes. According to RAINN:
— 73 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows;
— 38 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance;
— 28 percent are a boyfriend or spouse;
— 7 percent are a relative.
While 7 percent of attackers are family members in the case of adult sexual assault victims, it's nearly four times that for children, or 34 percent, according to RAINN. Other national statistics put that figure substantially higher.
Most local service providers interviewed for this series had personally handled incest cases, but were unsure about characterizing the prevalence of the problem. One exception was Clema Lewis, who has served as a counselor or social worker on St. Croix for 30 years.
"It's a problem here," she said. "People don't like to hear it, but it's huge. I have never done a presentation at any schools on this island — public or private — that someone didn't come to us and talk about a problem in their home."
For Lewis, one case in particular stands out. It happened several years ago involving a family of five daughters. All of them were, in turn, molested by their father, she said. "When they started getting old enough to act out, he'd leave her and go on to the next one."
And it's happening more and more to boys as well, according to Lewis. She said the Women's Coalition, despite its name, is increasingly serving male victims.
"More and more men will call us," Lewis said. "I'll have mothers call and say, 'I need you to talk to my son because he needs help.'"
Secrets and Lies
Nevertheless, the tendency, according to Gillespie of Legal Services, is to keep the abuse a secret.
"I think that people
believe that it's happening in this community, but most people won't admit that they know of anyone it's happening to," she said.
Dilsa Capdeville agrees. She's the executive director of Kidscope, a St. Thomas support agency for victims of child abuse and their families. She points to a photograph on the wall of her office of a smiling two-year-old girl who died in 1992, during Carnival.
"People saw this man dragging her little body across the street. She was falling down, and nobody was calling the police," Capdeville said. "At 10 that night, when the detectives went up there, she had been beaten severely, sexually molested, and then he put her on a stove without any pants and cooked her from the waist down. Then she wasn't quite dead, so he asphyxiated her.
"Police said when they picked up her body it was like hamburger meat."
That case, said Capdeville, prompted the creation of a bill in the Virgin Islands that made child abuse a felony. But not in time for this perpetrator.
According to Capdeville, he spent less than a year in jail.
Part 2: Justice for Perpetrators or a Catch-22?
Back Talk

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