I had such frustrating experiences lately trying to get some answers to some simple questions about staying safe after my rapist was released from prison that I just had to do something about it. First step: letter to the Editor of our local paper. I got a response almost immediately letting me know they might want to write an article about it. Here's what I sent (with a few small identifying place names changed):
As a lifelong feminist and ardent support of both Women’s and Victims’ Rights organizations, I assumed that when the time came that I needed assistance it would come easily to me.
I was terribly wrong.
After an idyllic childhood here in our county, I attended Rutgers University. Unfortunately in my first off-campus apartment I suffered a break-in and sexual assault by a stranger. My case differs from most survivors’ in that I later saw my attacker in public, called the Police, positively identified the rapist and then spoke at his sentencing.
For years it seemed like that would be where the story ended. And while the story may have stagnated for my imprisoned attacker, my own story continued to advance in beautiful ways. I’m blissfully married, raising five children in the county in which my husband and I both were raised, writing and performing (quite frequently about my survival experience.) The unstoppable march of time made it all possible and of course brought about the day I didn’t think would ever come: the inevitable phone call letting my know my attacker was released.
Immediately I became concerned for the safety of my family and myself. My attacker, though a stranger, was given access to my full name, which I did not change when I was married. Anyone with access to the Internet (as, conceivably, many Americans out of prison have) can find me. I had some questions about staying safe. The recorded phone call had suggested reaching out to my county’s Victim Witness Coordinator at the Prosecutor’s Office so that seemed like a good place to start.
The VWC in my home county was responsive but told me that most of the answers I needed would have to come from the VWC in the county where the crime occurred and she supplied me with that number. When I called it, I got a recording that said, “Do not leave a message. This voicemail is not monitored. For assistance, please press 0.” I complied and got the main operator at the Prosecutor’s Office. I asked her for the Victim-Witness Coordinator and was connected back to the unmonitored voicemail.
I tried my own county again. This time she gave me the direct line for the Department Head whom I called and left a message for. One of her subordinates returned my call, did not have the answers I needed and promised to call back. Days passed and an intern returned my call, did not have the answers I needed and promised to call back.
Neither ever did.
At this point I reached out to acquaintances that were lawyers but none had much experience in the area I needed. It occurred to me that the local Women's Crisis Center, an organization that I have admired for years and have donated both my money and services to, has a legal department.
I emailed the Legal Department to see if they might be able to help me. There was no response. After a few days I tried calling the main line instead. In a few days’ time, they established that the best help they could offer me was to attend a “free” legal clinic for $20.
Quite frankly, I could pay the $20 but refuse to for something that is supposed to and should be free. I knew the questions I had were not really that hard; I just needed someone with a little expertise in this field to help me out. At this point I was becoming extremely frustrated with the inadequacy of the resources at my disposal.
As a last resort, I decided to reach out to a friendly acquaintance that works in the Violence Prevention and Victims Assistance Office at Rutgers. I did not want to have to ask her for help. First of all, I wanted the help to have been easier to access on my own and secondly, as a person who graduated from Rutgers twenty years ago, I am no longer her responsibility. Begrudgingly I reached out to her and she said she’d try the VWC on my behalf.
Within a day I got a call. Within two days I had all of my answers.
A month after sending the email to the Crisis Center's Legal Department, I got an email with a partial answer and a suggestion that I contact someone at another organization with no contact information whatsoever, just that I could probably “find him online.”
I am frequently asked why I am so vocal about my experience. This is just one reason why. Many other survivors are too afraid, too shamed, too inexperienced to speak up and out—and then when they try to access the resources that are provided them, they reach one dead end after another.
Not every survivor has lawyer friends to ask or $20 to spend on free clinics.
Not every survivor has a friend at the Rutgers Violence Prevention and Victims Assistance Office.
Nor should s/he need one.
I am so disappointed and disheartened.