March 24, 2001 — The Domestic Violence Coordinating Council declared a "state of emergency" Friday for the territory's victims of rapes and sexual assaults.
Members of the group, who met with Attorney General Iver Stridiron earlier in the day, expressed the anger of victim advocates about the courts' handling of these cases. And they came up with some solutions.
Michal Rhymer, executive director of the Family Resource Center, said, "We are alarmed at the number of sexual assault incidents. Over the last two years, 60 percent of the sexual assault cases have been against children between the ages of 6 and 17 years."
Rhymer said that though the boundaries have been set and the law is in place, "We continue to see cases where V.I. prosecutors are allowing perpetrators to feel their actions weren't really 'criminal.'"
The group expressed frustration at the plea bargains the court frequently allows. Iris Kern, Radio One talk show host and director of the Safety Zone in St. John, said, "The message that has been communicated, inadvertently as it might have been, is that it is open season on women and children in the Virgin Islands. This has got to stop."
Kern said that even when parents are active in protecting their children, "The system has not always been responsive." Clema Lewis of the Women's Coalition on St. Croix agreed, noting the laws need to be changed and enforced. She said the age of consent should be raised from 16,where it now stands, to 18 years of age.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, who also attended the conference, has a bill pending to raise the age of consent to 18. The measure didn't reach the full Senate last term, but she said she will bring it to the floor again soon.
The group made clear their thoughts about the treatment of domestic violence and sexual assault victims, saying the community's tendency to demonize victims suggests the perpetrator deserves a measure of sympathy.
"Prosecutors need more training to make them aware and more sensitive about crimes against women and children." Lewis said.
To this end the council has set up meetings with prosecutors to explain its position and offer ideas. "The bottom line," Rhymer said, "is that men who commit the crimes need to be punished with certainty. A child of 16 cannot consent to sex."
The group decried plea bargains which, they said, generate a community feeling that sexual assault is accepted; there's no real punishment. Police Sgt. Riley Waugh spoke on the need for collaboration across the systems — police, the attorney general's office and the victim advocates.
The group proposed several solutions:
– Public education in schools and to the public.
– Aggressive prosecution and real jail time.
– A forensics lab on island.
– State-of-the-art training for police, attorneys general and advocates.
– A sex offender registry.
Holding a banner with the names of the victims of domestic violence who have died in the last 10 years, about 24 of the activists in red and white T-shirts reading "Stop child abuse" marched from the attorney general's office in the GERS building to Government House after the conference.
What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in spirit. "Early intervention is murder prevention," stated one of the signs they carried as they marched down the waterfront chanting aloud for "real jail time."
The council urged the community, especially parents, to immediately report incidents of rape, statutory rape or domestic violence to the police at 911. The other agencies to contact are: the Family Resource Center's 24-hour hot line at 776-7867; the Safety Zone on St. John at 693-7233, or the Women's Coalition on St. Croix at 773-9272. All three agencies have counseling services for men, women and children.