Portland police sexual abuse victims’ advocate says mental illness, homelessness increase risk of being victimized

Portland Tribune, April 10, 2014

Susan Lehman talks with a formerly homeless woman who was victimized multiple times while living on the streets

Susan Lehman talks with a formerly homeless woman who was victimized multiple times while living on the streets

There are days, more than a few, when Susan Lehman feels, if not torn, at least tugged by the possibility of what could be done. Lehman works as a Portland Police Bureau sex abuse victim advocate. Her job is to help women who have been raped.

On the job, she is as likely to hug a teenage girl who has been sexually abused as she is to spend an entire afternoon lining up shelter for a victim who is homeless. At night, she occasionally finds herself in tears, having successfully maintained the professional barriers her job requires, saving emotional reaction for her private time. And sometimes, in her private moments, Lehman gives way to the feelings she is not allowed to voice on the job.

“I have thought to myself, I would like to get this bad guy off the street,” Lehman says.

Lehman is one of two victim advocates hired five years ago by the Portland Police Bureau after a 2007 city audit determined that Portland had a remarkably low rate of conviction in sexual assault cases. Too many victimized women, the audit noted, were not coming forward to work with police, and not following through to testify after their assailant was arrested.

It was hoped that advocates working with assaulted women might help prosecutors achieve a higher conviction rate, as more victims learned to trust the criminal justice system. Lehman knows this. But she also knows that her first loyalty is to the women (and very occasionally men) she tries to help after they have been assaulted. Which is why during the daytime she so often has to keep her thoughts about what she’d like to happen to the bad guys to herself.

Nationally, only a small percentage of victimized women — estimated at less than 1 in 10 — brave the full process that leads to a conviction. Lehman could, if she were of a mind to, influence some hesitant victims to work with police and testify in court. But she never does. Not even close.

“I have never thought I hope the victim changes her mind,” Lehman says. “It is such an intensely emotional process that I wouldn’t want someone to do that who isn’t thoroughly prepared.”

In February, the Portland City Auditor issued a report assessing the current state of the police response to sexual assault. The report said that there have been significant improvements since the scathing 2007 audit.

Victims in Portland now can report sex assaults anonymously using a Jane Doe rape kit. That means police can start an investigation, and if the victim later decides to testify, the evidence will be available. All of the major Portland hospital emergency departments now have those rape kits and are able to use them; previously only the emergency department at Oregon Health and Science University could do so. And victim advocates such as Lehman are available to victims when they report rapes or when they are interviewed by detectives.

These changes have been occurring nationally as well. And yet, the data surrounding sex assault cases still puzzles experts, including some within the Portland police. First, statistics appear to show that in the last two years, women have become less willing to report rapes. Nationally, 28 percent of victims reported sexual assaults to authorities in 2012, down from 56 percent a decade earlier. Some experts say the last two years may have been an aberration, because previously reporting rates had been rising. But in addition, according to the latest Portland police data, police here are clearing fewer sex assault cases than they did six years ago.

After the 2007 audit, the rape clearance rate for Portland police jumped to 55 percent (in 2008) from around 30 percent. It has declined each year since.

Experts — nationally and in Portland — say that victims need and benefit from the support of advocates. They have assumed that advocates working with victims would increase the rate of convictions. And that as word got out about the support, more victims might be willing to report sexual assaults.

“I think they absolutely drive the clearance rate up,” says Sgt. Pete Mahuna, who heads the Portland police sex crimes unit. Mahuna is convinced more victims testify because they have the support of an advocate. In 2013, victims reported 194 rapes to Portland police. Fifty-six of those cases ended up suspended, almost all because the victim was unwilling to pursue prosecution. Unfortunately, Portland police do not have comparable data from the years before they began using victim advocates.

Mandy Davis, clinical director of the Trauma Informed Care Project at Portland State University’s School of Social Work, says Lehman’s willingness to see to the needs of victims is crucial in helping them get through the criminal justice process, and she’s pretty certain having Lehman on hand increases the chances victims will testify against their attackers.

“She is phenomenal,” Davis says. “She is what all advocates should be like.”

But the tension inherent in the work done by women such as Susan Lehman makes it impossible to know if Davis and Mahuna are right. Lehman and the police bureau’s other advocate, Slavica Jovonavich, work with 650 to 700 women a year. Another a half-dozen or so cases each year involve men, whose reporting rate is even lower than that of women.

Separating abused, abuser

More than 80 percent of sexual assault cases in Portland involve women Lehman describes as extremely vulnerable. Most are homeless or very poor, many suffer from addictions or mental illness. Most know the men who rape them, if only from the streets. So Lehman’s first form of victim assistance, and often most long-lasting, involves making sure victims have housing that can keep them separate from their abusers. Homeless women who have been raped need a place to sleep where they can shut the door — immediately. Many need psychological and addiction counseling. Some simply need food.

“You can’t address someone’s emotional needs until their basic needs are met,” Lehman says.

Most of the time Lehman meets victims alongside a detective who has been assigned to investigate a case. But lower-level sexual assault cases that involve offenses such as groping often are not investigated by a detective. The same is true when victims say they don’t want to press charges. In both cases, the women are still referred to Lehman or Jovonavich.

But those cases can be tricky. In one tragic incident last year, a woman told a police officer she had been raped by a nurse at a local hospital. But because the victim did not initially say she wanted to press charges, her case was referred to Lehman rather than a detective. Lehman attempted to call her by phone and, after not hearing back, sent a letter and later closed the case. A month later, the victim called the district attorney, who contacted the police. Lehman called the victim’s pager again, did not hear back and closed the case again. Meanwhile, the nurse assaulted other victims before being arrested.

About three times a week Lehman or Jovonavich starts working with a victim on a case that looks like a good bet for a conviction — but the victim says she won’t press charges or testify. That’s where Lehman’s resolve can get tested, but not as severely as some people think.

“We only do what victims want us to do,” Lehman says. “They don’t want their case investigated, whether they are a minor or an adult, we don’t investigate them. Because that would be re-traumatizing the victim.”

In fact, Lehman says her role can put her at odds with the investigating officer with whom she works.

“My job is to make sure the detectives do what the victims want,” she says. Possibly in reaction, at this point not all the sex crimes unit detectives invite Lehman or Jovonavich to accompany them when they interview victms, as has been recommended by auditors.

Lehman is working with a detective on a case involving a rapist who police think has assaulted a number of women in Portland, and will likely do it again. The rapist has been identified by a victim who reported the rape but says she won’t pursue the case. Lehman says the victim appeared to her “tentative and pensive.” Not only does Lehman feels no desire to push, she thinks the victim might be best served by choosing not to testify.

“We restore the power in their lives to them by giving them the option,” she says.

Also, pushing for testimony could backfire. “Imagine if we pressured a woman to go forward,” Lehman says. “She may not show up for trial. She many not accurately testify. And consider the emotional damage that would inflict on her, to feel somebody else yet again taking away her power.”

Homeless, mentally ill are most vulnerable

Kim was walking in Old Town recently when a man came up and gave her a big bear hug before stepping back and continuing on his way. Later, Kim, a tiny sprite of a woman who has been homeless on and off in Old Town for years, explained how she knew the man. He had raped her just a few blocks away.

Kim (not her real name), says she hardly reacted to the hug. What could she do? After the rape she had felt the same sense of impotence. Convinced nothing would be done to the man, she had not bothered to report the rape to police.

In fact, Kim says, she has been raped a number of times. Pretty much every homeless woman she knows in Old Town has been raped as well. Kim suffers from schizophrenia, and, while clean now, has a history of drug abuse. She knows she wouldn’t make a great witness in a he said/she said courtroom case.

Only once has Kim reported a rape. Two and a half years ago a stranger happened by and saw Kim, arms and legs bound by tape, tape across her mouth to keep her silent, being raped in Southeast Portland. The passer-by stopped the assault and called police.

Kim was taken to a hospital emergency department where she met Portland police Det. Jeff Myers, who called victim advocate Susan Lehman. Myers took Kim’s statement and Lehman arranged to have Kim taken to a women’s shelter after her release from the hospital.

The rapist, one day out of prison after serving time for a similar assault, was easily identified by the bystander. Convinced that this time was different because of her rescuer’s corroboration, Kim agreed to file a report with police.

Lehman’s job during the succeeding 10 months was to “keep her on board.” Lehman found Kim a subsidized apartment, drove her to medical appointments, even found a used computer and set it up so Kim could get email. When Kim said she was afraid to sleep alone, a police officer supplied a cat.

Two to three times a week Lehman visited Kim, taking her grocery shopping and to doctor and dental appointments, aware that if Kim were to become homeless again or her schizophrenia flared up, the case against her rapist would likely be dismissed.

On the day Kim was scheduled to testify in court, Lehman and Myers picked her up and drove her downtown. Lehman had taken a black skirt from her daughter and given it to Kim, along with a burgundy top, so Kim would look “ready for court,” according to the advocate. Lehman noticed Kim fidgeting in the back seat of the car, so they stopped at a Starbucks and talked awhile. Clearly, Lehman says, the prospect of testifying was unnerving Kim, whose mental illness, which can include hearing voices, is exacerbated by stress.

At the courthouse, Lehman stayed with Kim in the victims’ lounge, and later walked her into the courtroom, aware all the time that, “She could have done anything.”

Kim was able to describe the events of her rape well enough that her rapist was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Behind bars

Her experience is pretty much the standard for homeless women, says Doreen Binder, executive director of nonprofit Transition Projects Inc., which provides day services and shelter to the homeless in Old Town.

Asked what percentage of downtown Portland homeless women have been raped, Binder doesn’t hesitate. “A hundred percent,” she says.

“We’re not just talking about women. Men are sexually abused on the street all the time.”

Binder says whether it occurs while they are living on the street or before, sex abuse in some form is almost always part of the life narrative for the homeless. Many homeless women, she says, are incest and domestic violence survivors. Sexual abuse has shaped their world view and often shaped their later lives.

“You can’t be an incest survivor and abused as a child, end up on the street and say, ‘I won’t allow it.’ It just becomes the norm for you,” Binder says.

As it was to Kim, until Susan Lehman entered her life. Lehman still sees Kim nearly every week. The man who raped Kim in 2011 is behind bars, but others who did the same, including the one who gave her the bear hug, are still walking around Portland.

Kim credits Lehman for much more than helping her put one rapist behind bars. Asked what would have happened if she had not met Lehman, Kim says, “I wouldn’t be living here and I wouldn’t be stable.”

Ed. note: Not only does sexual assault often follow mental illness, it can precede mental illness.  See CNN’s report or download this fact sheet.