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Look at it this way Where assault victims are heard

October 7, 2018

It’s Friday morning and Americans are processing Brett Kavanaugh’s survival of sexual assault accusations to advance to a confirmation vote for U.S. Supreme Court justice.

The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education feels like the appropriate place to be right now.

Staff members and volunteers spend their days and nights helping survivors move forward after being attacked. They are often the first people survivors talk to on a hotline. They meet them in the dead of night in emergency rooms. They are available when news events trigger distress.

Which makes them tougher than most people. Tough enough to maintain poise even after 51 senators were more swayed by politics than by a woman’s torment. After Donald Trump took the temperature of an audience and felt it was the right time to break out his new third-grade insult comic routine impersonating a woman’s account of sexual assault.

The president mocked a woman who tearfully recalled details of her claim that a Supreme Court justice nominee drunkenly attacked her when they were teenagers.

You can’t stand back far enough to truly assess the big picture.

But that’s what we’re trying to do at The Center’s headquarters in downtown Stamford Friday. When Christine Blasey Ford hushed the Dirksen Senate Office Building for four hours during her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 27, every computer in this office was tuned in while staff members continued to work.

“People were so impressed with her, people believed her,” says Melissa Gallaher-Smith, development associate for The Center. “Even the president called her a credible witness. And other congress people and senators said she was believable.

“And then there was that shift.”

That shift. They’ve seen it before. The creepage of doubt in the absence of physical proof. This time, though, it was guided by a president declaring it “a very scary time for young men in America.”

Even if you question the narrative, it makes no sense to abuse Ford.

Marie Corriveau, a 24-year-old community educator, works with young people in towns served by The Center: Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton.

“We teach people how to be empathetic, how to be respectful and how to know and respect someone’s boundaries,” she explains.

Empathy, respect and boundaries. Admirable qualities to nurture in the classroom. Elusive qualities inside the Beltway.

The testimony — and subsequent disavowal by Kavanaugh and his supporters — served as a “national moment of triggering” for others who have been reaching out to The Center. On Saturday, staffers held a session with a group that wanted a safe space to talk through the news cycle.

Progress regarding sexual assault on campuses is painfully slow. Gallaher-Smith was a freshman at The College of William & Mary when a fellow student appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1991 to share her experience as a victim of date rape.

“There was no office, procedure, what to do with the accused and the accuser on the same campus,” she says, recalling that rape whistles were distributed to female students.

A generation later, she has a daughter in college. When mother and daughter were taking college tours, mom would grill guides about counseling resources.

It just so happens that 1991 was the same year Anita Hill’s account of Clarence Thomas’ sexual misconduct wasn’t enough to prevent him from being named to the U.S. Supreme Court. For some, Thomas and Kavanaugh wear black robes like scarlet letters.

“It is so politicized that you wonder, do they really not believe her?” Gallaher-Smith asks. “Or is it because it doesn’t serve their side?”

I express a concern that verbal stoning of Ford in the public square could discourage vulnerable survivors of sexual assault from seeking support.

Corriveau acknowledges that “it perpetuates the fear of people coming forward. That’s why sexual violence is so under-reported, because of that fear.”

She manages to find hope.

“On the other end, there are people who are angry and want even more to express their stories.”

After Ford told her story, a posting on The Center’s Facebook page was shared 150 more times than anything they previously posted, reaching 40,000 people and drawing donations. “People wanted to do something, and this was a way to help local survivors,” Gallaher-Smith says.

The Center reassures survivors they are not alone.

“That’s how things change,” Corriveau says, “you talk about it.”

If only everyone would listen with empathy and respect.

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time. Jbreunig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twitter.com/johnbreunig.

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