CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — The latest abortion bill in the West Virginia legislature includes exceptions in the cases of rape or incest, but only if the victim reports the crime to law enforcement within the first 8 weeks of pregnancy and at least 48 hours before the abortion. 12 News talked to the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services (WVFRIS) to learn more about how victims can report a sexual assault.

Nationwide, rape is known to be one of the most underreported crimes. Studies estimate that one in six women and one in 21 men will be a victim of attempted or completed forcible rape in their lifetimes, but only 16-40% of rapes are reported to law enforcement.

A big reason rape goes unreported is that victims perceive that they won’t be believed or don’t want to go through the pain of a criminal trial. But even when rape is reported, it’s rarely prosecuted. According to RAINN, only 5.7% of rape incidents lead to an arrest, only 1.1% of incidents are referred to a prosecutor, and only 0.7% are convicted of a felony. Even fewer, 0.6% of incidents, lead to incarceration. This is despite false accusations accounting for only 2-8% of reported sexual assault, according to WVFRIS.

“In particular, child sexual abuse can go on for months or even years before they tell someone,” said Nikki Godfrey, Assistant State Coordinator for WVFRIS, “And the victim may be threatened or coerced to keep this secret.”

Child sexual abuse can go on for months or even years before they tell someone, and the victim may be threatened or coerced to keep this secret.

Nikki Godfrey, WVFRIS

Victims may even be manipulated into thinking that the incident was their fault.

“Even while a sexual assault is happening, there’s all these questions running through their heads, and after a sexual assault, victims often ask themselves, what could I have done to prevent this? What could I have done to stop this? But, in reality, it’s never the victim’s fault,” Godfrey said. “That is one of the biggest hurdles that victims have to overcome is fear of not being believed when they report a sexual assault, and also that blame that they place on themselves following a sexual assault.”

This is further complicated when a victim knows the perpetrator. According to WVFRIS, more than half of all sexual assault incidents were reported by victims to have occurred within a mile of their home or at their home. Nearly 82% of all sexual assaults were committed by someone known to the victim. Forty-seven percent of assaults were committed by an acquaintance and 28% by family.

“It’s not someone that’s scary, hiding behind the bushes with a knife,” Godfrey said, “It’s typically someone the person knows and trusts, and that’s why it’s so complicated.”

Visit the hospital

Godfrey said one of the most important steps in reporting a sexual assault is to visit the hospital for a forensic medical exam as soon as possible. A victim has 96 hours after the assault to get an exam, but they should try to avoid showering or brushing their teeth before the exam for the best chance of gathering evidence. Even if a victim has showered, they can still get an exam, though. Godfrey said it can sometimes take hours to complete a forensic exam. And afterward, if the victim is not a minor, they can decide whether they want to make a police report or not.

Victims do have rights, and they have options, and that’s what we work towards, is making sure that they have those—that they’re informed, and that they can make decisions that are right for them.

Nikki Godfrey, WVFRIS

“There are so many factors as to why victims don’t report, as we’ve talked about, and it really comes down to when they feel safe enough to tell someone, and how they deal with the aftermath of such a traumatic incident,” Godfrey said.

That’s where health providers and advocates can step in to help someone in that situation, so they don’t have to make that decision by themselves. After the report is made, it’s up to law enforcement to prosecute the offender. And Godfrey said first responders are specially trained and understand the complexities of what victims experience.

“We’ve worked with law enforcement, and the officers that we know are cognizant of the fact that the victims may recant for fear of going through the criminal justice process or being threatened or coerced to recant,” Godfrey said.

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