Crowd turns out for local rape seminar

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    WEST MILFORD-Twice as many residents as expected turned out last Saturday, Feb. 12, for a seminar on teen rape and sexual abuse at the Police Athletic League building here. They learned that many women will face attackers sometime during their lives. Some 80 residents, concerned by recent local sexual attacks, turned out. Mothers with sons, fathers with daughters sat absorbed for two hours taking in as much information as they could in hopes of being able to protect themselves and their children. The small gym in the Police Athletic League (PAL) building was initially set up for around 40 attendees, but extra chairs and benches had to be quickly found to accommodate a gathering of twice that number. The event was the brain child of PAL Treasurer Liz Walsh-Wong who approached CarlLa Horton, Pinecliff Lake resident and executive director of the Northern Westchester Shelter, an organization dealing with victims of domestic violence. Walsh-Wong responded to the Dec. 15 alleged kidnapping and sexual abuse of a 15-year-old West Milford High School student by two youths. The incident was disclosed to police by the fearful victim on Dec. 28, and police made arrests in the case on Jan. 3, but the incident was kept from the various news media for three weeks or more, in direct violation of the state's Open Public Records Act which applies to all government entities on the local, county and state levels. Horton agreed to organize the event and sought the assistance of Gloria Sgrizzi and Candy Pittari, both colleagues of Horton in the Northern Westchester Shelter who have experience in helping rape and attempted rape victims. The seminar began by talking about the definitions of rape and dating abuse, inviting discussion from the parents and youths present. A broad range of characterizations of dating abuse were offered by the audience including verbal abuse such as name calling, physical abuse, controlling behavior, blaming activity, pressuring into sexual contact and resentment towards other friends and family. Sgrizzi and Pittari also discussed the myths surrounding rape and dating abuse, strategies and awareness tips to prevent abuse and advice on the warning signs or "red flags" in an abusive relationship. Red flags include someone saying things like "I love you" or "I can't live without you." very early in a relationship. Other signs are an individual who regularly voices put downs and negative comments towards their partner as well as incidents like someone buying a partner a cell phone with the intent to constantly track their movements. Sgrizzi and Pittari say this pattern of activity often start out mildly but grow in intensity and, significantly, with an undercurrent of fear. Also on hand was Karen Coleman who was herself the victim of rape 11 years ago. Coleman works as a forensic nurse, a professional who meets rape victims at hospitals with the purpose of collecting evidence from the victim to be used in a subsequent prosecution against the attacker. Coleman started out by asking the 60 women in the audience to stand, then said, "Unfortunately out of all of us who stood up in this room eight, nine, 10, maybe 12 of us are going to be victims of rape or attempted rape in our lifetime." One of the key problems faced by women is self-blame and that is incorrectly aimed at them as victims. Blaming the victim in a sexual assault case is common, she said, and admitted she even found herself doing that at times. "You ask yourself ‘what was she thinking,' or "what was she doing getting into his car or his hotel room?' Trust me; she wasn't thinking she was going to be raped." Sgrizzi spoke, offering advice to parents on how to continue working with their children on what can be a difficult subject to broach. Sgrizzi said, "Parents have to listen without judging." Sgrizzi also said, "Parents should use every resource available to them and reach out for help." As to whether the police should notify the public about incidents of rape or sexual assault, Sgrizzi said, "Without second guessing the police, the information should be released." "There is a lot of talk of introducing abstinence education in schools. Why should children not also be taught about what a healthy relationship is and what a healthy relationship is not? "This would not be encouraging sex in teenagers; our program would, in fact, discourage it," said Coleman. Jean Marie Sacco said, "I came today to find out information on rape prevention as a parent and a woman. I believe knowledge is prevention." Sacco's 13-year-old daughter Caizy said, "It was a good program." On whether the topic of healthy relationships should be introduced to the school curriculum Sacco sai, "It's a must. It should be mandatory." Sgrizzi, director of community relations development, initiated a program for youths called STAR (Students Terminating Abusive Relationships). The STAR program is introduced in schools but is led by students themselves with the goals of promoting healthy relationships, assisting people in crisis and breaking the cycle of abuse with the ultimate aim of empowering victims to live free from abuse. Pittari, who is the director of outreach community education, thanked the 20 or so men who attended saying, "Sexual and dating violence can not be stopped without the help of men." Although reports of rape and attempted rape are declining in the nation, the occurrence and nature of this crime still produces alarming statistics. In particular, the finding that teenagers between the ages of 16-19 are more than twice as likely as any other age group to be the victim of a rape or sexual assault, according to a National Crime Victim Survey. Those between the ages of 12-15 and 20-24 are also in high-risk groups. The survey also found that 62 percent of victims knew their attackers. Only 48 percent of victims reported their attack to the police although this was an increase of 20 percent on the previous year's figures. There are several organizations locally and nationally dedicated to providing information and assistance to victims of sexual abuse or simply those concerned about protecting themselves or others. The Passaic County Women's Center has rape crisis services with their hotline number 973- 225- 3613. RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) claims to be the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization. Its hotline is available around the clock at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). It operates a comprehensive website at