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Rapes increase in Washington County

April 20, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

A person was raped every 11 days in Washington County last year, making a total of 31 victims of the violent crime, according to numbers provided by the Maryland State Police Uniform Crime Report.

The number of rapes reported last year are up from 23 reported in 1996, upsetting what had been a downward trend since the number reached an all-time high in the county in 1991 with 35 reported rapes, according to statistics.

"We're seeing a tremendous increase in the number of acquaintance rapes," said Vicki Sadehvandi, executive director of Hagerstown-based Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, known as CASA Inc.

Statistics provided by CASA Inc. show that one in three females and one in seven males will be raped in their lifetime.

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In about 80 percent of all rapes, the victim knows the rapist, she said.

"It's usually someone they're acquainted with or someone they've met," said Hagerstown Police Officer Randy Rourk, who heads the department's victim assistance unit.

But the increase doesn't necessarily mean that any more rapes occurred last year than from previous years, according to police and victims' advocates. It could indicate that more victims are coming forward and reporting the incidents, they said.

Still, officials claim there were more than 31 rapes in the county last year. Victims are often reluctant to report the incidents out of confusion, embarrassment and fear, officials said.

"In most cases, victims are hesitant to come forth because they feel they are to blame," Sadehvandi said.

Even though rape victims may not be coming forward, police are starting to see more parents of victims reporting the crimes.

"Most date rapes are reported by parents because the kids don't want to go through with it," said 1st Sgt. Mike Hegedus, of the Hagerstown barracks of the Maryland State Police.

Unfortunately, usually by the time parents find out - sometime weeks or even months after the rape - it's too late to collect physical evidence, Hegedus said.

At that point, police try to get a confession out of the accused, he said.

Besides the physical trauma a rape victim goes through, the act also can be devastating emotionally and mentally.

Once a person is raped, they are subjected to a battery of questions from hospital personnel, police, family, and, if they decide to file charges, from lawyers and judges.

That's where Jill Ritter, victim-witness coordinator with the Washington County State's Attorney's office, comes in.

Ritter tries to make contact early on with the rape victims, meets with them several times, and helps them through the long and varied court processes.

"Basically I'm there to be a friend for them," she said.

But many times, the pressure is too much, and rape victims often ask to work out a plea bargain because they don't want to testify, Ritter said.

Counselors at CASA Inc. attribute the rise in date rapes to a number of causes, including a more violent society compounded with a "you owe me" mentality and youth getting involved in relationships and becoming sexually active at early ages, Sadehvandi said.

"I say this over and over. Society is very violent and it sends a message that if you don't get what you want, it's OK to be violent," she said.

Rapists can strike at any time, but police urge the public to use common sense to prevent the crime from occurring.

"We don't tell people a lot of things they don't already know about," he said, like keeping doors locked, walking in well-lit areas, and not letting strangers into your home.

Too many times people put themselves in positions that are hard to get away from or hard to do something about if things turn bad, Rourk said.

"Rape is not a sexual act. It's an act of power. It's an act of violence," he said.

The key in this case is to survive. If a person has to submit to what's going on, it still doesn't make it legal. It's still rape, Rourk said.

Rourk is putting on self-defense demonstrations at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday at a stage near JCPenney at the Valley Mall.

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