Cass County prosecutor speaks at sexual assault rally

Published 12:47 pm Thursday, April 15, 2010

Leader Publications

DOWAGIAC – Registered nurse Lisa Wheaton attended her first Take Back the Night rally in college in La Crosse, Wis., to support a friend victimized by sexual assault.

“It happens every day,” she said. “In fact, one in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. College-age women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and 73 percent of rape victims know their assailants. Only 6 percent of rapists ever spend a day in jail.”

Keeping Our Students Safe was the theme for the fifth annual Take Back the Night rally Thursday, April 8 in Beckwith Park in downtown Dowagiac.

“A sexual assault changes the life of a person forever,” Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz said. “Not only physically, but psychologically. The victims are real and they’re still dealing with what happened.”

“Sexual violence is very prevalent in our society,” Wheaton said. “I don’t know that it can be stopped, but we can try to prevent it from ever happening in the first place by educating our young people. Sexual assault affects an estimated 700,000 women each year in the United States. It’s the most rapidly growing crime in the U.S. In Berrien County, more than 450 cases were reported last year. A big problem is that a lot of people don’t report it. I can’t help anybody as a sexual assault nurse examiner unless they tell me. The reason people don’t tell is they’re embarrassed or ashamed.”

Especially young people, Wheaton related, because they might be underage to drink legally and they don’t want their parents to find out.

Or, “You think police won’t believe you because you were out wearing that short skirt. It doesn’t matter because no one has a right to assault another human being.”

The sexual assault “realm” is populated by numerous new terms, she acknowledged, such as date rape.

“Just because you say yes once doesn’t mean every time it’s yes” – a point Fitz picked up on discussing “defensive dating” and men who end up in his office because they equate any prior intimate relationship to a “lifetime pass.”

“The first few weeks of freshman year of college you’re most vulnerable,” Wheaton said. “It’s most likely to happen because people get away from mom and dad for the first time. They have that newfound freedom and decisions they haven’t made before and they end up in trouble.

“According to research, rape tends to occur after 6 p.m., most after midnight when people have their weekend parties. Another thing that’s happening, if you watch ‘CSI’ shows, is chemically-facilitated rape,” although “alcohol is the number-one date rape drug because it’s so readily available. It’s legal. If you’re not of age, you can get someone who is to buy it. It decreases your ability to think clearly, make good judgments and protect yourself. I don’t know about you, but there are decisions I made when I was 19 without alcohol that I regret.”
Someone slipped sedatives might appear to be very drunk without consuming alcohol.
They become “completely uninhibited, like the girl standing on top of the table taking her shirt off or the guy running through the streets with just underwear on. That’s not what they would normally do. They can go into deep, unresponsive sleep. I have also seen in the ER an amnesia effect where ‘I remember up to…’

“We have to help our youth reduce the risk of drug-facilitated rape. We all know people are going to drink. That’s another thing that’s difficult to stop,” Wheaton said. “Never leave your drink unattended. Something can be slipped into pop. Only accept drinks from a bartender. Never accept anything from a new acquaintance or someone who is overly friendly. If their esteem is vulnerable and they’re not usually hit on, that puts them in a very vulnerable place. Don’t be quick to trust casual acquaintances, even if they’re a friend of a friend. Remember, 73 percent of rapes are committed by people you know and trust. Don’t let your friends be split off into secluded areas.”

Warning signs in students are sudden frequent school absences, grades start to slip, bubbly personalities become depressed. They socially withdraw and no longer go out with friends.
“Find out what’s going on with them,” Wheaton advises. “You have to get resources from the community – police, take them to the hospital, guidance counselors,” DASAS.

“The most important thing is to let them know it wasn’t their fault. Be supportive and don’t judge. Our job is two-fold. We take care of the patient’s physical needs once they’re assaulted. We also address the need to obtain evidence and information about what happened to support them through the trial process. We’re here to help. You’re not alone.”
Fitz, a prosecutor for 27 years, was appointed in Cass County by Circuit Judge Michael E. Dodge in May 2003. Fitz was elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2008. He joined his state association’s board of directors in 2007.

Fitz recounted some cases from Muskegon and Cass County, including two convictions from the Dowagiac area in 2008.

A jury in June 2008 found guilty an intoxicated 33-year-old Dowagiac man for sexually molesting a 14-year-old girl in the bathroom of a friend’s home.

Testimony indicated that in November 2006 the Decatur youth had gone roller-skating, then spent the night at her girlfriend’s house in Wayne Township.

“A night of unfettered debauchery” during the summer of 2007 involved a Dowagiac man, 26; another local man; and a female, 19, who plied a 13-year-old girl with beer and rum before taking her to a motel. The four engaged in sexual intercourse, changing partners at one point.

“Boys,” Fitz suggested, “No means no. There’s a statutory aspect. It’s true, ’15 will get you 20.’ There are consequences that will change your life forever. Girls, you may be doing things right, but it’s like defensive driving. Watch out for the other guy. It is not your fault if you are raped, but date defensively. You want to stay away from the cliff so no one has the opportunity to push you over. Be wise and recognize the dangers of alcohol and don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. Don’t park in remote areas or get a ride home if you don’t have to. Don’t open the door to be a kind-hearted person. Be a safe person. Travel in groups, be a friend to your friends, take cell phones with you and guard your drinks. If a situation does occur, call a parent, call a teacher, call a counselor. Talk to an adult, talk to a friend, talk to police – sooner rather than later so we can get evidence and get a conviction.”
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Melissa Sytsma introduced the keynote speakers, Wheaton and Fitz.

Wheaton graduated from Lake Michigan College School of Nursing in 2007 and has worked for the Lakeland-Niles emergency room for the past three years.

Wheaton also worked as a welfare social worker for the Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state for five years.

In January Wheaton joined Lakeland’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program after completing forensic training in North Carolina.

In February 2009, Lakeland HealthCare launched SANE, a new service for victims of sexual assault and abuse in southwest Michigan.

Based in the Emergency Departments of Lakeland hospitals in Niles and St. Joseph, the program provides these patients with comprehensive treatment and support by registered nurses trained to anticipate their medical and emotional needs.

“With SANE, Lakeland gives sexual assault victims in southwest Michigan prompt and compassionate care from medical professionals who understand victimization issues,” according to Dr. Paula Coghlan, medical director of Lakeland HealthCare’s SANE program. “Our nurses are trained to identify and document physical trauma and psychological needs, insure that each patient receives appropriate care by following protocol and provide necessary referrals to law enforcement and community agencies.”

Lakeland HealthCare’s team of SANE-trained nurses treats victims of sexual assault and abuse ages 12 and older, with plans to extend services to pediatric and infant patients.
Patients receive care in specially-equipped rooms designed to provide comfort and privacy.
Registered nurses who are part of the program undergo extensive medical and legal training, including forensic techniques and evidence collection, documentation and courtroom advocacy.

“By collecting thorough evidence and providing courtroom testimony, SANE nurses help prosecutors obtain convictions in cases of sexual assault and abuse,” according to Angela Mann, RN, BSN, SANE-A, coordinator of Lakeland HealthCare’s SANE program. “We are proud to make a difference in the quality of care for victims, and for the entire community.”

To learn more about the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, contact the SANE office at (269) 687-1880 or (866) 976-7263.

Mary Lynn Falbe, Domestic and Sexual Abuse Services (DASAS) executive director since 2007, welcomed everyone huddled against the cold in the 1995 Haggin-Wimberley bandstand ringed with Clothesline Project shirts survivors design.

“Our focus tonight is on how to keep our young people safe in the home, in school and online,” Falbe said.

Mistress of Ceremonies Mallory Dowd, DASAS sexual assault program coordinator, introduced Kate Bathon, community and law enforcement liaison.

“A woman walks alone down a dark, deserted street,” Bathon said. “With every shadow she sees and every sound she hears, her pounding heart flutters and skips a beat. She hurries her pace as she sees her destination become closer.”

Bathon traced the history of such marches to March 4-8, 1976, in Brussels, Belgium, when 2,000 women representing 40 countries converged for a candlelight procession.

Reclaim the Night occurred the same year in Rome, Italy, where 16,000 rapes had been reported.

International interest in the movement spread.

“Women from New York to India let their voices shatter the silence,” Bathon said. “Crimes of this nature continue to appear in the news in epidemic proportions,” as well as music and movies.

“The history of Take Back the Night continues to be written, its mission to end sexual violence for all remains a beacon of hope for the millions affected. We have made great strides, but our march is far from over.”

“We often use the pronoun ‘her’ when we talk about survivors of sexual violence,” Dowd said, “but we know males are also affected by this and also experience sexual assault. One in seven males will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18.”

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a call to raise public awareness about sexual assault and rape and to educate the community on how to prevent sexual violence.

National statistics from the Bureau of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that sexual assault affects men, women, and children of all ages, from all walks of life.

Sexual assault is the most rapidly growing crime in the United States, with more than 700,000 women reporting sexual assault each year.

Sexual assault or rape is the violent crime least often reported to law enforcement.

Fewer than 50 percent of all cases are reported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
One woman, 43, identified herself as a survivor raped at 13. She is now battling cervical cancer.

Cancer claimed both her parents.

“I’m still fighting,” she said to applause.

Dowd read a poem by 1996 Dowagiac visitor Alice Walker.

For more information about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit