Mercer Island mayor proclaims April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Local Eastside resident shares how community resources helped her family heal from abuse.

Mayor Debbie Bertlin and KCSARC board member Lawton Penn help proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Mercer Island. Photo courtesy of the city of Mercer Island

Mayor Debbie Bertlin and KCSARC board member Lawton Penn help proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Mercer Island. Photo courtesy of the city of Mercer Island

When Heaven Strothers was looking for information and support to help her family cope with the trauma of sexual abuse, she turned to the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC).

Four years ago, Strothers found out that her husband had been sexually abusing their two daughters, who were 16 and 4 years old at the time. Since then, the entire family has used KCSARC’s services, which include counseling, legal advocacy, parent education and more.

“I was completely shocked and devastated. It felt like the floor collapsed beneath me,” Strothers told the Reporter. “I never would have guessed something like this was going on in my own home … Nobody expects it to happen to them.”

At the April 3 Mercer Island City Council meeting, Mayor Debbie Bertlin proclaimed April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Accepting the proclamation on behalf of the community was Island resident Lawton Penn, vice president of the KCSARC Board of Directors. KCSARC partnered with Sound Cities Association to encourage all cities in King County to recognize the month, and take action to prevent sexual violence and support survivors.

“In Washington State, 45 percent of women and 22 percent of men report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and … in King County, 6,657 adults and children received sexual assault services at accredited community sexual assault programs last year,” according to Mercer Island’s proclamation.

Nationally, one in five children under 18 are sexually abused, and in King County last year, 2,000 children and youth who have been sexually abused received services from KCSARC.

In a year when the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are trending, Strothers thanked local leaders for their willingness to “be loud about sexual assault,” and for sending an important message to residents. Strothers, who lives in Kirkland, also thanked the local police department for its response, which resulted in her husband’s arrest.

“We can only end sexual violence when we all commit to standing against it,” she said.

“Be Loud” was the theme of KCSARC’s 2018 fundraising breakfast, where supporters were encouraged to “speak up” about sexual abuse and “speak out” to help survivors by contacting lawmakers.

Strothers’ now ex-husband spent less than a year in jail in Seattle and was then extradited to Georgia, where the family had lived before, to serve a 40-year sentence: 20 years in jail and 20 years on probation. She said that each state has its own laws, but that Washington’s can be strengthened to better protect survivors.

“It’s very frustrating for me seeing other families that I know [affected by sexual abuse] and the perpetrator getting out so soon,” she said. “That’s why I get up and talk, because that needs to change.”

KSCARC is active in guiding public policy, along with education and prevention programs, but is most committed to ensuring all people affected by sexual violence and abuse get the treatment they need. Community sexual assault programs like KCSARC are available to answer a survivor’s phone call 24 hours a day, to provide advocates to help navigate the criminal justice process and to provide therapy services.

“There are not enough words to say how thankful I am for KSARC. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Strothers said.

Strothers used the parent services offered by KCSARC to learn how to talk to her kids about what happened, and tell them it wasn’t their fault. She also realized that she had been a victim of domestic violence, though she didn’t recognize it at the time. And she learned how to recognize “grooming” behavior, which is how perpetrators can draw victims into a sexual relationship, and maintain it in secrecy. Some offenders, like her husband, know how to manipulate people into compliance and silence, Strothers said.

Strothers said that she participates in KCSARC’s speakers’ bureau to speak out for those who haven’t found their voice yet, and to let them know that speaking up about sexual assault can be scary, but that there is hope for healing. She said that the most important thing is to believe survivors when they come forward, which more and more people are feeling empowered to do. After #MeToo started trending, calls to KCSARC increased by 56 percent.

Laurel Redden, marketing and communications manager for KSCARC, said that the number of incidents is not increasing, but reporting is.

“It’s nice to see this kind of activity happen, given where we are in history of this movement,” Redden said. “Year over year, we’re seeing the effects of more survivors coming forward, knowing they will be believed and finding justice … It’s a domino effect that empowers others who may not have disclosed their sexual assaults.”

KSARC is running a “30 Days, 30 Ways You Can Help End Sexual Violence” campaign in April, with a goal to raise awareness and inspire action everyone can take in their day-to-day lives to help prevent sexual violence.

To reach the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, visit www.kcsarc.org or call the resource line at 1.888.99.VOICE (86423).

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