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When college sexual assault hits home: how parents can help

Parents can encounter a steep learning curve about how to best support a child in the aftermath of a rape. Here are the stories of two families as they've navigated immense challenges and sought justice and healing.

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    Kelly Hettick and her mother, Kathy Hettick, participated in a May 9 fundraising walk in Seattle for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Kelly says her mother's loving support was central to her recovery from a rape at a dorm party when she was a first-year student in 2005.
    Courtesy of Kelly Hettick
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* Editor's note: Join us on Facebook Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET for a special chat with education reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, who will be joined by the mother of a rape survivor as they explore how parents and their college-age children can take a stand against sexual violence.

When she met her dad, Jeff, for breakfast early on a Tuesday morning, Elly couldn’t bring herself to tell him about the nightmarish experience she had been through just hours before in her dorm room. He figured she looked disheveled because she was tired and about to go to tennis practice. He snapped a photo of her before heading home from his visit last October at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

That Friday, he got a call from Elly’s mother. She asked him to sit down, and then, “I heard the words, ‘Elly was raped!’ It was as if I were kicked in the stomach,” the father, Jeff, writes in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Elly told a close friend before reporting the rape to campus officials and police. And as soon as she gave her parents the OK to come a week later, they arrived to support her together – though they’re not a couple.

Nine years earlier, another mother, Kathy Hettick, received a tearful call from her daughter, Kelly, who had recently started college at Seattle University. It took Kathy a few moments to piece together what Kelly was trying to tell her – that she had been raped the night before by a fellow student at a dorm party.

Shocked, Kathy dropped everything and drove an hour and a half to meet her daughter at a hospital, holding her hand and playing with her hair while they waited hours for someone to examine Kelly for a rape kit. After that, Kelly says, “she just walked me back to my dorm room and held me when I cried. That’s when I knew, this is my support structure.”

The experiences of the Hetticks, and Elly and her parents (who requested that only their first names be used), are a window into some of the most agonizing moments for a family – when a mother has to manage her sons’ desire to track down their sister’s attacker, when a daughter can’t tell her parents directly what has happened, when a father can’t look his daughter in the eye.

They are stories about coping with the unfathomable, feeling betrayed, and braving the long road to recovery. And they are stories of how the power of a parent’s love – amid immense challenges – can help bring some measure of justice and healing.

***

Rape on college campuses has come out of the shadows in recent years, as more survivors have spoken up, prompting media attention and action from the White House, Congress, and many universities. Several documentaries on the subject have been making the rounds this spring: “The Hunting Ground,” “It Happened Here,” and a segment of "Vice" on HBO called "Campus Cover-up."

But many rape survivors don’t tell anyone. Others tell their parents only long after the fact.

In a study of 374 female first-year students at a Midwestern university in 2012, 19.6 percent said they experienced some form of sexual victimization during the seven-month time frame. Of those, 55 percent said they discussed it with someone: Ninety-five percent talked with a female peer, 46 percent with a male peer, 13.5 percent with their mother, and 10.8 percent with a sibling or other family member.

Rape victims often encounter negative reactions, but those who do have someone supportive to talk to in their network of family and friends tend to experience lower rates of post-traumatic stress, depression, and health problems, researchers have found.

“One thing we hear from victims all the time is the first person they tell has a huge influence on what comes after. If they tell a parent and get a good response, that’s going to make a world of difference in their recovery,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).

When children do confide in their parents in the aftermath of a rape, the parents can encounter a steep learning curve about how to best offer support and cope with their own emotional responses.

RAINN focus groups have revealed that some parents’ first reaction is to ask a lot of questions because they don’t know what else to do. But Mr. Berkowitz says that victims often perceive these questions – about their whereabouts, whether they were drinking, whether they knew their attacker – as a form of blame.

For rape survivors, “being able to speak aloud about what you’ve experienced to someone who doesn’t return with shame or blame or rejection is perhaps the most healing thing that a person can do,” says Matt Atkinson, a sexual violence response professional and former therapist in Oklahoma City who offers resources on his website, ResurrectionAfterRape.org.

The best thing parents can do, counselors say, is to listen and avoid being judgmental. Berkowitz suggests letting victims share as much or as little information as they want to, and offering to help connect them with a counselor.

Elly echoes that advice to parents: “Give them time and don’t take anything personally,” she says. Whether or not they want you to be involved, she says, “just be there for your kid.” 

***

According to the family’s account, Elly was trapped in her room and sexually assaulted for more than an hour by a fellow student she knew.

The next day, she confided in a campus sports trainer and visited a hospital. Her close friend was able to fly in from the East Coast to comfort her. He let Elly's mother know what had happened, and he assured her that Elly was safe.

Once her mother, Julie, had the basic outlines of the incident, she asked Elly how she could be most helpful. “She said, ‘Mom, do what you do,’ ” Julie says in a phone interview. As Elly puts it (during a separate phone interview), “My mom’s really kind of controlling, but in this situation it’s OK.... I kind of wanted my mom to take care of everything because she’s good at that.”

In the weeks that followed, Julie jumped into action: calling the police department to get and give information, talking with campus administrators and local rape crisis counselors, reaching out to anyone in her network who could offer advice about pursuing possible criminal charges as well as a complaint on campus.

Elly tried for about three weeks to stay on campus, having just recently transferred there. But she didn't feel she was getting much support from campus officials or from her tennis team, and she was afraid the man would come back to her dorm room, Julie says. So she took some time off at her mom’s home in Colorado.

By Thanksgiving, it was clear she would be dropping one class and taking an “incomplete” rather than a grade for the others. The tasks seemed overwhelming – gathering information about reimbursement for the dropped class, her meal card, her dorm room.

“You would think that they would have a system, that if something like this happens, do not make the victim and her family go through this – jump through hoops, write enormous letters and declarations as to why we felt this was a good idea, and then submit it and wait a period of time for them to say yea or nay,” Julie says. “It’s so insensitive.”

It wasn't until Julie connected with Laura Dunn, a lawyer who assists campus rape survivors, that Elly "got every single accommodation.... That was really telling to me,” Julie says.

“The best thing she did as a parent was actually to get a lawyer,” says Ms. Dunn, who founded the nonprofit SurvJustice in Washington. Survivors often need an advocate in such situations who better understands campus systems and legal issues.

Dunn’s policy is to let the survivor be in the driver’s seat, even if parents are actively supporting her or him. The student “may have a different interest than what the parent thinks is the right thing to do,” she says. In one case, a father told a victim she should become an advocate and speak out. “She was like, ‘I just want to be done. Can I just be a student now?’ ” Dunn says.

Attorneys who specialize in campus sexual assault cases or work from a victim-centered approach aren’t always easy to find. In that case, Dunn recommends parents look for civil rights attorneys who understand Title IX, the federal law that includes a mandate for schools to appropriately address reports of sexual assault.

***

After Elly reported the incident on campus, she was assigned an advocate and spoke at a hearing in December. About 24 hours afterward, she was informed that campus officials had found the student responsible for sexual misconduct and sexual harassment and that he would be expelled.

Elly and Julie were happy to get that news, but an emotional roller-coaster ride awaited them.

The student appealed the decision – not to argue with the finding, but rather to request a less severe punishment so that he could receive his diploma, according to documents shared with the Monitor by Elly’s family. By early February, Elly and Dunn had found out from officials that his date of expulsion would be the day after he was due to graduate.

When Dunn and some reporters questioned this, a university spokeswoman said that those communications had been sent in error and that his expulsion was effective the day of the original decision; he would not be receiving a diploma.

To the family, it looked as if the university was backtracking for the sake of public relations.

“She was devastated. We all were,” Julie says. “What we wanted was honesty…. What I really care about is making the school accountable, and what they did was so wrong.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of naive parents and victims start off in these cases expecting to be respected, and they think they’re in an environment where integrity trumps all. And it’s a very harsh lesson to learn, to land at the end of one of these cases” with an outcome that to them is unjust, says Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at New England Law, Boston, who often challenges how universities handle sexual assault cases. “That can destroy someone even more so than the underlying violence, feeling that sense of betrayal by the university.”

At the same time, the prosecutor’s office that had been working to build a legal case decided not to go forward with criminal charges.

“I felt pretty desperate. I was fearful for Elly and her well-being,” Julie says. She checked in with Elly regularly in February and early March. Finally, she found a therapist who Elly agreed was a good fit. Relieved, Julie got past the stage where she could barely sleep through the night or eat.

***

For Kathy Hettick, helping her daughter meant not only talking with university officials, but also managing rage in her own family.

Kelly's two brothers “wanted to kill the guy,” Kathy says in a phone interview. “I was walking a fine line between being there for Kelly and stabilizing the brothers.”

The desire for revenge is common among family members, says Mr. Atkinson, the sexual violence response professional. Talk of revenge may be well intended, but for most survivors, it signals that “there’s yet one more person in their life ... who just sees violence as a form of meeting their own personal needs,” he says. “Then, rather than them being taken care of ... the positions are reversed so that the victim is now trying to calm and control someone else.”

Kathy kept reminding her sons that for Kelly’s sake, seeking justice had to be her own battle. “For her to have any sense of self-worth, she needed to take it, own it, and follow that process through,” Kathy says.

At first, as Kathy managed the family's emotions, she had some extended family members supporting her. After several months, she started working with a counselor.

It's “very important for loved ones to realize they need self-care,” Dunn says.

While her mother was a strong support, Kelly's father "became silent and distant," she says. He "couldn’t even make eye contact with me.” At first she thought it meant he was ashamed of her, but looking back, she realized he just didn’t know how to handle it emotionally. And her mother told her he did ask periodically about how everything was going.

“A lot of loved ones think there is some perfect thing they are supposed to say to help this all be better, and there isn’t,” Atkinson says. In fact, victims often don’t remember later what a loved one tells them, he says. But they do remember “if they felt cared for.”

***

A few days after the incident, Kelly decided she wanted to report it. Her mom walked with her to campus security, and “she sat with me and listened to my terrible rape story, but she stayed strong for me," Kelly says. "She kept telling me how proud she was of my courage.”

Several months later, following a hearing, the student was found responsible and dismissed from the school, according to both Kelly and a Seattle University spokesman.

Although the disciplinary process was difficult and drawn out, Kelly says the university panel’s decision to expel the student was unanimous and helped her feel validated. “I felt listened to.... I felt like they heard my story from a neutral perspective and they knew, without a doubt, that I was raped.”

The criminal justice system, on the other hand, “was pretty much a dead end,” Kathy says, and Kelly was especially disappointed that the university had not kept a recording of the man's campus hearing. Attorneys told the family that a civil suit could take years and still not yield a positive outcome, so they dropped that idea.

Kelly needed a lot of healing. She took a “hardship withdrawal” from school, and at a particularly low point nearly a year after the attack, she fell asleep at the wheel after a long night of partying. She flipped her car and hit a tree.

That was a turning point for her, as well as her parents. It was time for Kelly to take control. Her parents told her that if she didn’t seek professional help, they would stop supporting her financially. She finally made a connection with a counselor and really began to recover.

When Kelly was considering where to attend next, she and her mother visited four campuses in Washington State and asked how they educate students about sexual assault. They found vastly different responses, Kathy says, including one where someone told them, “ ‘Well that doesn’t really happen here.’ And [we thought], well, we will not be going to this school.” (See related story on 10 questions to ask when choosing a school.)

By this point, it was clear to Kathy that schools should be offering a lot more tools to help students navigate perils that her family had never dreamed of. “You talk about protecting your child from the outside world," she says, "but this was from the inside: This was a peer.”

Ultimately, Kelly transferred several times, but she graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. She volunteered in Mexico for a few years and is now working as a bookkeeper at her mother’s accounting firm.

Both Kathy and Julie encountered people who asked whether their daughters had done something to make themselves vulnerable to being raped – reflecting a common misperception that persists about a crime that is more about asserting power than about sex.

Elly had not been drinking or at a party. Kelly had been drinking, and at first, she questioned and somewhat blamed herself. It didn’t help, she says, that a police detective in effect minimized her experience by pointing out that she had been drinking and wasn’t attacked by a stranger jumping out of a bush.

Her mother, Kathy, though, has always offered the kind of response that experts say is key to helping survivors understand they are not to blame: “The bottom line was, it was not a mutual situation. He was aggressive and he trapped her. There’s nothing about that that’s OK.”

***

In May, Elly finished her semester at the University of Arkansas while living in an off-campus apartment. She didn’t finish all her classes, and she withdrew from the school after the semester, moving to an apartment not far from her mom in Colorado.

Elly says she had been hesitant at first to report what happened to her, but she did so in part because she hoped to keep the man who had attacked her from doing the same to other women. “One of my friends told me that he’s done this kind of thing before and I was like, I’d rather stop him while I can,” she says.

That’s also why she wanted to share her story publicly. “After all this stuff happened, it makes your eyes open up a lot more ... that this actually is a big deal ... and [that] not that many survivors come out with their stories,” Elly says. “So I feel like, as much as you can, [it’s important] to educate people about it – stop the ignorance about it, the stereotypes ... [so] people know the truth.”

Elly’s parents continue to grapple with what happened to her.

Despite the hours talking about how to handle the aftermath, Julie says, “to this day we haven’t talked directly about what happened. I know what I know from a police report and her friend.”

Julie hasn’t worked with a therapist, but she has been helped by her prayers and by support from people she trusts. “Part of my healing has come by realizing that I needed to give my daughter up to a higher power than myself,” she writes in an e-mail. “My focus now is ... how to move forward with life. How to forgive, let the anger go, and not focus on what could have been or how life was disrupted.”

She says Elly recently told her she needs time to “ ‘find herself.’... I am here to support her as she moves into her next chapter of discovery.”

Elly’s father, Jeff, writes: “What still haunts me is a photo I took of her the Saturday before the rape at the football game [we attended together], which shows a smiling, beautiful, confident young woman, and [several] days later another photograph that depicts a scared, helpless looking, much smaller in scale young woman who has visibly ‘dead looking eyes.’ That second photo is very hard to look at for any length of time as it visually represents the absolute terror she must have been through and is still dealing with now, and for how much longer no one knows.”

But he also notes how proud he is of her for “having the strength and courage” to report what happened. “My daughter’s effort, made with the help of an advocate, is the only way that this mostly overlooked and hidden crime can be exposed to the general population. I can only hope that [her story] will help someone else have the courage to not hide this type [of] sexual crime.”

If you or someone you know needs support, please contact the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673).

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