- Associated Press - Sunday, April 22, 2018

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - For the rest of April, the gazebo outside the Sequoyah County Courthouse will serve as a reminder to listen to those who say they have been sexually assaulted.

Sequoyah County law enforcement and justice officials and residents met outside the courthouse on April 9 to light up the gazebo in teal in honor of victims and survivors of sexual assault, the Times Record reported . The gazebo was lit in the hope of underlining the importance of believing people who say they have been sexually assaulted, Sequoyah County sheriff’s investigator Cindy Smith with the Sequoyah County Sheriff’s Office said.

The event was held in observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“I want people to walk away from here understanding it does happen,” Smith said in reference to sexual assault.

Smith said between one in three and one in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. She also said a percentage of men, who are less likely to speak up about their experiences than women, are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives as well.

On top of this, Smith said the United States also has “a large number of people” who will experience sexual assault before they turn 18. She also estimated only 33 percent of all sexual assault cases are reported to authorities.

“It’s very difficult for a sexual assault victim to come forward and make his or her report to start with. There are so many things he or she has to deal with to do that,” Smith said. She said potential factors for not disclosing sexual assault are fear of not being believed and fear of going through the entire process to convict the perpetrator.

Laura Kuester, director of Help In Crisis in Sequoyah County, added that some also blame the victim for what he or she wears or how much he or she drinks in the case of sexual assault. She said this type of blaming is especially common toward women who choose to speak out about their experiences.

“All of these things still exist today,” Kuester said. “That is not OK.”

Though Smith said Sequoyah County officials have taken steps to mitigate sexual assault through measures like law enforcement-appointed advocates, officials at the event still emphasized the scope of the problem in their community. The Children’s Safe Haven Advocacy Center in Sequoyah County, which mostly advocates for juvenile victims of sexual assault, has had 35 interviews with victims in a three-week period between March and April, according to Kuester.

“This event, like so much of combating this issue, is making enough people aware so they can see their own friends, family or extended family members who might be suffering, who might be victims, and getting them the resources they need,” said Will Cosner, an assistant district attorney for the 27th Prosecutorial District of Oklahoma.

The gazebo lighting was preceded by Smith, Kuester and Stacy Slaughter, another assistant district attorney for the 27th District, speaking to the group who had gathered for the event. Those who gathered also placed pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is also observed in April, on the lawn next to the gazebo.

“All I’m asking you is to start by believing,” Smith told the audience. “You may be the first step in them reporting that crime and starting the healing process.”

Once the gazebo was lit, those attending the event marched throughout downtown Sallisaw with teal glow sticks in observance of the month.

“The information you really know, trust and believe comes from the people you know, trust and believe,” Cosner said. “That’s why we really would like to continue for (this event) to get bigger and to let this information spread so that people can start picking it up and using it in their own lives and their friends’ lives.”

“Someday, we would love not to have an event like this, because we would have basically wiped out any sexual abuse or child abuse. Unfortunately, it still continues to happen, and maybe, with the public being aware of these types of things happening in our community, maybe they can start reporting them more, and we can do something to bring awareness and stop it in the future,” Slaughter said.


Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/

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