Suffering in silence: Why many Eagle County sex assault survivors choose not to report
Eagle County has made strides in nonprofit, public health resources available to victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse
Despite being one of the more prevalent types of crime in Eagle County, sexual assaults are often not reported here, mirroring a trend seen across the nation. Local service providers are working harder than ever before to address the reasons behind this, some of which are especially complicated in our community.
The Vail Public Safety Communications Center reported 90 sexual assaults between the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2020, and 91 the following year. That only represents the calls that could be identified as being related to sexual assault, said Marc Wentworth, who oversees the dispatch center.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office alone handled 66 sex assault cases in 2019 with 19 of those victims being under the age of 18, according to Sheriff James van Beek. The Sheriff’s Office responded to 39 sex assault cases the following year, eight of them being juveniles, and 47 in 2021, eight of them being juveniles.
This does not begin to capture the full scope of sex assault crimes in the Eagle Valley as many are not reported to police or to anyone for that matter. These numbers dwindle further when looking at how many cases lead to arrests and, ultimately, to convictions.
For the many victims who have a pre-existing relationship with their assailant, this decision may be borne out of the concern of losing housing, employment or relationships, one local service provider said. Other times, victims choose to suffer in silence due to feelings of shame, doubt or the fear of not being believed.
“It was really hard,” said a former Eagle County resident and sexual assault survivor. “If I didn’t have people there, if I didn’t have resources like going to therapy, it’s easier to probably succumb to some of those thoughts and those feelings that, like, ‘Maybe I overreacted, I was drunk.’”
The Vail Daily is protecting the name of the victim, who requested anonymity.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s leading anti-sexual violence organization, just 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, meaning more than two out of three assaults go unreported.
As a result, it is difficult to understand the full extent and impact of these crimes and even more difficult for law enforcement officials to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Why do so many victims choose not to report?
While it is crucial to note that the experiences of victims can vary widely, a study published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine found that female victims more often listed environmental factors as the reason why they chose not to report their assault to law enforcement. It is also crucial to note that people of all gender identities and sexualities can be victimized.
“Law enforcement officials consider sexual assault to be the most underreported violent crime in America,” the study stated.
“The reasons for not reporting were primarily environmental factors (prior relationship with assailant) rather than internal psychological barriers (shame, anxiety, fear),” it reads.
Still, there is an element of “feeling shame,” the Eagle County survivor said. “The people I told would never say, ‘Well, you were drunk,’ or whatever, but just having that story out there, it just crosses your mind, I guess.”
The Journal of Emergency Medicine’s survey asked 20 questions of 424 female sex assault victims ages 13 and up during an 18-month period between 2001 and 2003. The study group was pulled from the YWCA Nurse Examiner Program and local emergency departments in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Some (victims) likely chose to avoid the notoriety and stigma attached to rape prosecution, or they feared rejection by friends and coworkers,” the study reads. “More than half of the women we surveyed felt partially responsible for the assault (60%), were concerned about public exposure (75%), and were ashamed or embarrassed by the assault (74%). Practical issues may also be involved — a victim may not have the time to participate in a criminal prosecution, especially if she is employed.”
RAINN’s analysis of reports of sexual assault between 2005 and 2010 showed that 20% of victims said they chose not to report the incident to police because they feared retaliation and 13% believed it was a “personal matter.”
Of the women who chose not to report their assault to police, 87% knew their assailant, most of them listing the person as an “acquaintance” or “date.” The most common reason given for not wanting to report was that the victims were “concerned that others will find out about assault,” according to The Journal of Emergency Medicine.
The myth of “stranger rape” being the most common kind of sexual assault is more insidious than it may seem.
“…Most people think of rape as a sudden, violent attack by a stranger in a deserted, public place, after which the victim is expected to provide evidence of the attack and of her active resistance,” according to the study. “These characteristics, then, constitute what is referred to as the classic rape situation. When an individual is confronted with a situation that does not conform to the stereotypical concept rape, she may be reluctant to report the incident or seek medical care.”
“It’s very uncommon that a sexual assault occurs from a stranger type of situation,” said a local nurse, who also requested anonymity. “…These are people that they know, people that they feel like they can trust, even people that they love, and now they have this violent situation and so I think that’s a big barrier for people seeking services.”
Reporting in a small, resort community
Speaking out against an assailant that you know personally becomes even more complicated living in one of Eagle County’s small towns, the local survivor said. After the man who assaulted her was released on bond, our string of small towns began to feel a whole lot smaller.
“The day he posted bail, I was, like, a mess,” she said. “I was just scared of running into him and seeing him.”
“It’s not like in a big city where maybe there’s a certain amount of anonymity. It’s known that you have reported and that can be very challenging,” said Sheri Mintz, the executive director of Bright Future Foundation, Eagle County’s primary service provider for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Beyond this, “the fact that we are a resort community just has certain dynamics to it,” Mintz said in a July interview. “Many times, an assault can occur when someone is here vacationing or it’s not their primary residence, so … they don’t necessarily have that close friend, that family member that they can have a face-to-face conversation with.”
Commander Ryan Kenney of the Vail Police Department said tourists, second-home owners and seasonal workers account for the vast majority of the sexual assault calls the department receives. This makes the victim much less likely to want to report to police and open up a case, which may require them to travel back to attend court hearings.
High levels of tourism often collide with “inexperience and lack of knowledge” around recreational marijuana and how alcohol affects the body differently at 8,000 above sea level, Kenney said.
“If we took the alcohol, the drugs out of it, 99% of it wouldn’t happen,” Kenney said. “…The majority of the sexual assaults that I’ve handled … it’s someone, an acquaintance of some kind, and what starts out as maybe a consensual contact quickly becomes a nonconsensual contact.”
“…We try to do as much (education) as we can with our staff and with visitors about the impacts of alcohol and the impacts of elevation and not overdoing it,” he said. “If you decide to try marijuana and you haven’t since college, be with people that you trust in a safe environment so that you don’t find yourself in the situation where you may normally not find yourself in your everyday life.”
Both parties being intoxicated may have been enough for police to drop a sexual assault case in the old days, but Eagle County law enforcement officers have more education on sexual assault and what informed consent looks like these days, local leaders said.
“I have heard from almost every victim that I have spoken to: ‘This is my fault. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have drank that much. I shouldn’t have gone into that car. I shouldn’t have gone into that room. I shouldn’t have worn this, or I shouldn’t have done that,” Kenney said.
“And that is infuriating … We shouldn’t live in a society where anyone feels like they can’t go out and have a few drinks and not be victimized by somebody, that they can’t sit in a car with someone and not be victimized, or they can’t go up to a room with somebody and not be victimized,” he continued. “This isn’t what our young adults should think, that this is their fault. When they tell somebody, ‘no,’ that should be the end of it.”
Members of the Avon Police Department have also identified underreporting among Eagle County’s immigrant population due to the fear of facing immigration consequences. This is a myth, Avon Police Chief Greg Daly said.
In fact, the complete opposite is true in that victims of crimes are eligible for a special kind of Visa called a “U Visa,” which police have to certify, Chief Daly said. Being a victim of a crime is never held against an individual when it comes to their application for citizenship or permanent/temporary residency.
The Avon Police Department has upped its outreach efforts in recent years to try to combat this misconception, Daly said.
“Immigration is a big thing where sometimes in our sex assault cases, suspects will use that as leverage,” said Alan Hernandez, a detective with the Avon Police Department. “It could be an employer/employee and they say, ‘Hey, if you don’t do this for me, then I’ll report you to immigration or I’ll fire you.”
Concerns about employment status was also noted as a theme among those who chose not to report, according to study published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine.
“We have done a lot to engage with our community and gain their trust where they feel comfortable reporting some of these crimes,” Hernandez continued. “I think what’s helped me out greatly is I’m an immigrant. I’m Spanish-speaking. When it comes to interviewing victims and suspects, victims feel a little bit more comfortable because I’m talking to them in Spanish, in their language, which is easier for them to explain.”
Nearly one third of Eagle County residents identify as “Hispanic/Latino,” according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data. The county also has a significant immigrant population with 17.5% of respondents reporting that they were born in a different country, according to this Census data.
Those that have lived in Eagle County for a while have probably heard it being referred to as “the happy valley,” a picturesque wonderland where everything is sublime all the time, said Dr. Stacie Freudenberg, the clinical director of Bright Future Foundation.
“We have this sort of social structure within the valley that everything is so great here – and it truly is in a lot of regards – but that doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen,” Freudenberg said in a July interview. “So, I think some of that hesitancy might arise from just the public sentiment, the social sentiment that we have within our community.”
If a victim of sexual assault chooses to reach out, either to the police or to a local nonprofit or public health resource, the first thing they are often asked to do is a physical examination known as a SANE exam. This is another area that, historically, posed a challenge for Eagle County victims.
These kinds of exams are used to document physical evidence on the body of a victim and are conducted by a specially trained nurse. The nurse works with victims at their comfort level to take samples and document any marks or bruising on the body, said Amanda Shelley, a local sexual assault examiner nurse coordinator.
SANE exams became available in Eagle County this summer through Colorado Mountain Medical’s new Victim First Care clinic. Before this development, local victims had to travel across county lines to Frisco or Glenwood Springs to access these services.
“I think one of the biggest barriers obviously is our roads in the wintertime — both of those have passes to go through which are very frequently closed,” Shelley said. “So, you just were assaulted and you have to drive in who knows what type of weather and then when you get to the site … you have to wait for the nurse to come in because both of those sites, the nurse isn’t coming until the patient arrives. … So, we’ve really shortened the time frame for that patient.”
The new clinic is open “24/7 365 days a year,” she said. The team’s response time is typically about 45 minutes unless a victim prefers to come in at a different time.
Having this service locally available also allows the clinic to offer “wraparound services,” connecting victims with other Eagle County service providers.
“We’re really making sure that patients are being followed up with whatever behavioral health services they need, financial needs. If they need shelter, there’s lots of different comprehensive options through Bright Future Foundation,” Shelley said. They also have strong ties with law enforcement and, of course, Vail Health Hospital to make the process as seamless as possible for the victim.
“We’re not engaging law enforcement unless the victim requests it,” Shelley added. “We’re purely a victims program and engage law enforcement at the victim’s request.”
Even if victims do not wish to report an incident to the police, SANE exams allow them to preserve physical evidence if they want to bring charges forward later on, Kenney said. Police will put that evidence in storage and do not touch it without the consent of the victim.
While these exams are conducted with extreme care by compassionate, well-trained professionals, the experience can breed an undeserved burden — the height of which looks like re-traumatization.
On the flip side of this, “having advocates out in the community like Bright Future Foundation and our program are really helpful to these victims because we can help walk them through that process that can be hard and emotional and intimidating,” Shelley said. “…I think sometimes for victims just to hear that, ‘Yes, your body does look OK, and you are healthy and you’re going to heal from this,’ that starts their healing process right there.”
Since the Victim First Care clinic opened in May of last year, the team has received 49 calls from victims and conducted 23 exams on survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, according to Shelley.
Unfortunately, the Vail Health clinic did not yet exist in the hazy days after the sexual assault of the former Eagle County resident, who asked to remain anonymous so that what happened to her back in 2019 does not continue to impact her life and career.
‘You just want to feel like you’re in control’
When she was sexually assaulted by her roommate in February of 2019, the victim said the immediate aftermath was a blur. She had to find somewhere else to live, move out all her belongings and process what had just happened, all while continuing on with her work week, she recalled.
She reported the assault to police two days after it happened but when they asked her to drive across county lines to get a SANE exam, she said it just felt impossible.
“If I didn’t have to go to (Frisco), I would have done it. I mean, I guess I don’t know for sure, but I would have been a lot more likely to,” she said.
“It was really the fact that I was going to have to, after work, drive all the way to (Frisco) like I don’t know how long it takes to do (the exam) and that’s an hour drive going all the way over Vail Pass in the winter,” she continued. “…It was just so much going on, there was just no way of doing it.”
Prosecutors were able to convict the man who assaulted her and a friend who was visiting that weekend based on the strength of their stories and other evidence against him. After a lengthy court battle, the man, George Brown, was sentenced to four years in community corrections in December of last year.
Her story may sound familiar to some. She came to the valley in 2018 to work a job in Beaver Creek. She had trouble finding housing and, ultimately, turned to Craig’s List, as many do. She finally found an affordable room available in a large duplex in EagleVail where she lived with five other people, including her two landlords.
Her landlord told her that she would share the house with like-minded young professionals, “but it was much more like a party house,” the woman said. She tried to make it work, but it wasn’t long before she began looking for a new place to live, which of course is never an easy feat in Eagle County.
This kind of housing insecurity common to Eagle County is another one of the unique factors that make things even more complicated for local survivors of sexual assault.
“If I didn’t have somewhere to move, I don’t know what I would have done,” the woman said.
“I really liked living up in the mountains. I liked my job a lot. I didn’t want this to be the reason that I moved,” she said. “…You just want to feel like you’re in control.”
In the years that followed, the woman said she came to understand why many survivors of sexual assault choose not to report what happened to them to police, but said she is glad that she did.
For those Eagle County survivors who do wish to report to police right away or may not know where to reach out, Bright Future Foundation is a good place to start. The woman interviewed by the Vail Daily was able to get quick and affordable access to therapy through Bright Future Foundation after her assault.
“That was really huge that I had a place to go up there and I had never been to therapy before, but that helped me so much,” she said.
How to get support
Survivors of sexual assault don’t have to choose between opening a case against the person who assaulted them or doing nothing, Mintz said. Bright Future Foundation offers a comprehensive support network to victims.
“We are that confidential source,” she said. “We are that person that can be trusted and offer a certain amount of protection, offer advice and support.”
Bright Future Foundation is designed as a one-stop shop for support and advocacy, connecting victims to resources, and providing therapy, legal support and housing as needed. The nonprofit organization is based in Avon but opened an additional shelter capable of housing 24 victims in the summer of last year.
The team at Bright Future Foundation can answer questions, help victims with protection orders and get them plugged into behavioral health resources, Mintz said. For victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, or domestic abuse, they can also help find temporary and, in some cases, permanent housing for individuals and families.
Bright Future Foundation’s 24/7 hotline can be reached at 970-949-7086.
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org