LIVE OAK — According to statistics gathered from the U.S. Department of Justice, incidents of sexual violence have fallen nationally by more than half in the past 23 years.
The rate of sexual assault and rape has decreased from 4.3 assaults per 1,000 people in 1993 to 1.6 per 1,000 in 2015.
Across the nation, it is estimated that someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.
But just how big is the problem in Georgia and North Florida?
Mary Martinez, executive director of The Lily Pad Center in Albany, said her organization has tracked data since 2008.
“The number has been consistent on a yearly basis,” she said. “I don’t think we can ever say 100 percent if there is an increase or decrease.”
The SunLight Project team in Georgia and North Florida took a look in the coverage area — Valdosta, Dalton, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Tifton and Moultrie, Ga., and Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla. — to see how the region stacks up to the national trends.
How is sexual assault defined?
According to the Georgia code of statutes, sexual assault means rape, aggravated sodomy, statutory rape, aggravated child molestation, sexual assault against a person detained in a hospital or other institution, sexual assault by a practitioner of psychotherapy against a patient, incest, bestiality, sexual battery and aggravated sexual battery.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
Georgia has a much narrower definition of the crime. According to Georgia statute 16-6-1, “A person commits the offense of rape when he has carnal knowledge, carnal knowledge being defined as any penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ, of either a female forcibly and against her will or a female who is less than 10 years of age.”
Rape is not the only sexual assault crime one can commit in Georgia.
Aggravated sodomy is “when he or she commits sodomy with force and against the will of the other person or when he or she commits sodomy with a person who is less than ten years of age.”
Child molestation falls under the umbrella of sexual assault as well. It is defined as “any immoral or indecent act to or in the presence of or with any child under the age of 16 years.” In Georgia, child molestation includes sharing pictures or videos of those aforementioned immoral or indecent acts.
Georgia law states “a person commits the offense of sexual battery when he or she intentionally makes physical contact with the primary genital area, anus, groin, inner thigh or buttocks of a male or female and the breasts of a female without the consent of that person."
Sexual battery is a misdemeanor offense unless it is against a person under the age of 16 or a second or subsequent conviction, in which case it is a felony.
“A person commits the offense of aggravated sexual battery when he or she intentionally penetrates with a foreign object the sexual organ or anus of another person without the consent of that person,” according to Georgia law.
Who are the victims?
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, there are on average 321,200 victims age 12 and older of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.
The majority, approximately 54 percent, are between the ages of 18 and 34. While women and girls are more likely to experience sexual violence — approximately one out of every six — it is estimated that one out of every 10 rape victims are male.
LGBTQ people are at a higher risk for sexual violence.
Approximately 175,000 of the reported rape victims are white, with nearly 50,000 victims being Hispanic and approximately 25,000 reporting victims being black.
For children under the age of 12, an estimated 63,000 a year are the victims of sexual abuse.
Who are the perpetrators?
According to RAINN, the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in eight out of 10 rape cases, the female victim knew the person who assaulted her. For adult victims, 45 percent of rapes are committed by an acquaintance, 25 percent by a spouse or significant other and 28 percent by a stranger.
Child victims are a little different. Ninety-seven percent of all juvenile victims know their attacker. Out of reported juvenile sexual abuse cases, 59 percent were committed by acquaintances and 34 percent were committed by family members.
The majority of the offenders are white males (57 percent) over the age of 30 (50 percent).
According to data gathered from around South Georgia and North Florida, both states fall in line with national trends.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime statistics only go through 2015.
During that year, there were 2,222 rapes reported with 325 arrests.
In 2015, there were 28 people age 16 and younger who were arrested for forcible rape, 57 people aged 17-21, 79 aged 22-29, 71 aged 30-39, 51 aged 40-49 and 39 aged 50 plus.
Three-hundred-nineteen were male and six were female, while 124 were listed as white and 201 as non-white.
In 2015, there were 65,487 reported family violence incidents, with 441 of those being logged as sexual abuse.
How do Georgia and Florida measure up?
A total of 134 sex offenses were reported for 2016 between the Thomas County Sheriff's Office and the Thomasville Police Department.
Of the 134 incidents, six rapes were reported to the Thomas County Sheriff's Office and seven were reported to the Thomasville City Police.
Thomasville Police Chief Troy Rich said each of the seven reported rapes was investigated.
"They were all unfounded," Rich said.
"Rape cases are difficult, they really are," said Thomas County Sheriff's Office's Kevin Dennis, lead investigator for special victims, adding he believes a great number of rape incidents go unreported.
Crystal Parker, who investigates sex crimes for the Thomasville Police Department, said the bulk of sex offenses reported and investigated by the TPD include rape, statutory rape, child molestation and aggravated child molestation.
"Those are the ones that we deal with the most," Parker said.
Parker also noted the majority of sex crimes are not committed by a stranger but instead by an acquaintance or a family member.
Treehouse Advocacy Center Executive Director Jackla Lawson said a total of 165 forensic interviews were conducted at the Treehouse. So far for 2017, 88 forensic interviews have been conducted.
The Treehouse works with children and adults who have experienced sexual assault, physical and/or sexual abuse.
"Ninety percent of our caseload is children," Lawson said, noting 85 percent of that is sexual abuse allegations.
In Suwannee County, Fla., there were 15 total forcible sex offenses reported in 2016, which accounted for a forcible sex offense rate of 33.8 per 100,000 population.
Additionally, there were six total domestic-violence-related forcible sex offenses reported for 2016.
Three people were arrested for forcible rape in 2016 and three were arrested for non-forcible sex offenses. All six were males.
There was one male juvenile arrested for non-forcible sex offenses.
In Hamilton County, Fla., there were six total forcible sex offenses reported.
Additionally there was one domestic violence related forcible sex offense reported for 2016.
One male adult was arrested for forcible rape and two adult males were arrested for non-forcible sex offenses.
One male juvenile was arrested for non-forcible sex offenses in 2016.
Another Way Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center offers counseling, support and safe shelter to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Another Way serves Lafayette, Hamilton, Suwannee, Columbia, Dixie, Levy and Gilchrist counties.
Andrea Gottry, executive director of Another Way, said from January to July, there have been 19 victims that Another Way has helped in its seven counties.
Angela Evans, Another Way’s sexual violence outreach coordinator, said 51 percent of female victims are raped by an intimate partner.
Monya Engles, Another Way program director, said the 18-33 age range has the highest number of incidents in the North Florida area. She added the 46-64 age range has had a few victims.
Engles said it is statistically proven that a woman’s chances of becoming a victim of sexual assault doubles while on a college campus.
Engles said 27 percent of women at college experience some sort of sexual assault.
Valdosta Police Investigations Cmdr. Leslie Manahan reports 13 rape cases were worked in 2016 in Valdosta, and for 2017, the department is at eight. The typical age range is 18-23.
Fourteen sexual assaults were reported to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office in 2016, including three that remain under investigation and only one that was cleared by arrest. Eleven were exceptionally cleared, meaning there was insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed. The three cases that remain under investigation are all rapes.
The victims there were all females. One was 14, one was 16 and one was 28. In all three cases, the victim knew the attacker; two of the perpetrators were family friends and one was an uncle. The attackers were between 20 and 30 years of age.
The Milledgeville Police Department investigated three rapes and one sexual assault in 2016. Three victims were white and one was black, with one being 19, one being 23, one being 50, and one being 60 at the time of the attacks.
Two rapes happened in the victims' homes and one happened at a party at the home of an acquaintance, while the sexual assault occurred just outside the victim’s home. All of the victims knew their attackers at least somewhat personally, and all were female.
The Dalton Police Department had a total of 50 sexual assault reports for 2016 with 54 victims.
There were 17 rapes reported, five forced sexual assaults, two aggravated sodomy and 25 other sexual assaults reported. Forty of the victims were listed as white. Eight were Latino, four were black and two were unspecified. Forty-seven were female, six were male and one was unspecified. Four victims were younger than the age of 12, nine were aged 12 to 16, 11 were aged 18-21, 29 were aged 22-55 and one was older than the age of 55.
Whitfield County had 32 reported rapes for 2015. The county government would not provide other data without a formal open records request and a fee.
Tift County had 12 reported rapes in 2015.
Mary Martinez, the executive director for The Lily Pad Center in Albany, said the facility serves 24 counties, including Tift County.
In 2016, the center saw more than 300 children for forensic interviews after a reported sexual assault. It conducted more than 130 sexual assault exams on children and more than 65 on adults.
In June, Martinez said there were 15 sexual assaults reported. Twelve of the reports involved child victims. Of the three adults, one was male.
Martinez said more than half of the children helped by the center were abused by a direct family member or caregiver.
“Ninety percent of those who are abused know their abusers,” Martinez said. “This is someone their family trusts or is a family member.”
In Colquitt County, there were 27 sexual assaults reported with a total of 33 victims. Sixteen of those involved children younger than the age of 16.
The ages of the children range from 3 to 15.
In the cases where gender was reported, 23 of the victims were female and four were male.
In Moultrie, there were 15 cases reported for 2016, and all of the victims were female.
Colquitt County fits in with the national trend for juvenile sexual assault cases.
A common thread running through cases where the victims are underage is that the alleged offender is a relative.
Among sexual assaults and child molestation investigations, the suspect is a relative in 11 instances. Of those, five were identified as the father of the victim, two as uncle, and one each as grandfather and brother-in-law. Other suspects included current and ex-companions and friends of the family and/or victim.
Twenty-two victims were listed as white. All of those were female, with the exception of two males who reported sexual assaults in Colquitt County Jail. Another five were black, two of whom were males ages 3 and 6, and another six were Latino.
Can the actual number of victims be accurately reported?
One thing that anyone who works with victims of sexual assault is quick to point out is that the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported.
It is estimated that two out of three sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement.
“To look at the statistics, it doesn’t look like there is a lot going on but there is,” said Andrea Gottry, executive director of Another Way.
“Take the statistics for what they are,” Gottry said.
Gottry said the statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement regarding rape are not fair statistics because it only includes reported cases. The aftermath of a sexual offense varies, said Crystal Parker, who investigates sex crimes for the Thomasville Police Department.
"It differs from person to person," she said. "Some wait years, some have immediate outcry."
Although the Valdosta Police Department has a 75 percent clearance rate for rape cases in Valdosta, there are still numerous assaults that go unreported.
“I think it's just hard,” said Valdosta Police Cmdr. Leslie Manahan, who oversees investigations. “It takes a strong person to get up and report it. I can't imagine reliving it. A lot of women wait because at the time they may have been intoxicated and underage. We don't care. That doesn't matter to us. A victim is a victim.”
Mary Martinez, executive director of The Lily Pad Advocacy Center in Albany, said 80 percent of the children who experience sexual abuse never tell anyone about it.
“We live in the South,” she said. “We raise our boys to be tough and that doesn’t give them the option to report.”
She said because many children are abused by people they are supposed to be able to trust, or who are trusted by their families, it’s “very hard for kids to come out and say this person hurt my body.”
For adults, reporting a sexual assault depends on the age.
“What we have found lately is that most of the ones who don’t want to tell are young women, college kids, who are just starting out in their careers,” Martinez said.
She described one victim as a young woman who was sexually assaulted by a co-worker at her first job out of college.
“She doesn’t want to report because she doesn’t want to lose her job,” Martinez said.
Why do sexual assaults go unreported?
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that out of every three rapes, two go unreported to law enforcement.
For college-aged individuals, only 20 percent of female students and 32 percent of female non-students report. Twenty-eight percent of elderly victims report sexual assaults. For members of the military, 43 percent of female victims and 10 percent of male victims report.
There are various reasons why victims don’t report.
According to RAINN, 15 percent believe law enforcement either could not or would not do anything to help. Twenty percent feared retaliation of some kind.
“It’s hard for victims to see perpetrators get away with it and people in high positions of power talk about their ability to use and abuse women without repercussions,” Martinez said.
She referred to the recent case out of California where Stanford student Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting a female but only received a six-month sentence.
And that was a case that went to trial with a conviction.
Out of 1,000 rapes, RAINN estimates that 994 perpetrators will walk free.
“Twenty years ago, you would see a person get arrested for child molestation and think that they were going to do some lengthy prison time … Sadly, we’re not seeing those lengthy prison sentences statewide anymore, and especially not with sex crimes,” said Detective Haley Beckham, a member of the Georgia Sex Offender Registry Task Force.
Another issue, Martinez said, is trials take a long time.
“There is a large discrepancy between the amount of reports and the amount of arrests,” she said. “Trials take a long time. We still have incidents from 2012 that haven’t gone to trial yet. Many victims just want it to be over.”
Martinez said juries are prey to what she calls the “CSI effect.”
Jurors expect clear DNA evidence that leads directly from the victim to the perpetrator.
“That’s just not real life,” she said, but it makes obtaining a conviction difficult.
What comes after the assault?
For people who have been sexually assaulted, it can be confusing to know what the next course of action should be.
Valdosta Police Cmdr. Manahan said there are options as to how the report can be done. If medical assistance is needed, the victim can immediately go to the hospital and staff will alert local authorities, or contact 911 and have an officer sent to the location.
“Our officers speak with the victim and find out basic facts,” Manahan said. “We find out facts so the victim doesn't have to relive the crime over and notify the detective that responds out.”
Arrangements are made to transport the victim either to the hospital or The Haven, a 24-hour temporary shelter in Valdosta for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Dr. Tricia Hale, Valdosta State University Counseling Center director, echoed the VPD about how college students should handle an assault, stating the incident can be reported to campus police and similar protocols will be followed.
Assaults should be reported immediately as the first 120 hours are crucial.
“The sooner the better,” Manahan said of reports. “That time period is crucial in collecting evidence. The victim should try to not use the restroom or shower. We will also need all clothing and bedding.”
Reports can be filed anonymously as Jane Doe, with evidence collected at the time of assault. It's then held for a year should the woman decide to press charges during that time.
Capt. Chris Crossen with Dalton Police Department advises those who have been sexually assaulted to report it as quickly as possible.
"All too often, we get these reports four or five days after it happened," Crossen said. "And again, I don't want this to seem like I'm blaming the victim. I understand they have been traumatized. But forensically, the greater the delay, the less there is for us to work with.
"Do your best to be aware of where you are, how you got to be there. A good description is a good starting point, and if I have a good starting point, the more likely I am to get on track quickly. If you can leave something of yours behind, and you can tell me where it is, that's going to be good, too."
Angela Evans, Another Way’s sexual violence outreach coordinator, said when a victim comes into the office the first step is to make the person comfortable and assess the needs.
“We encourage them to report, but we do not force them to,” Evans said. “The biggest thing is to give them options and explain what each option entails.”
“We want to make it as easy as possible to make the right decision for them,” said Monya Engles, Another Way program director.
A rape charge, if it results in a guilty verdict by a jury or a guilty plea, carries a minimum of 25 years to life in prison, Thomas County Sheriff's Office's Kevin Dennis said.
According to Parker, there are multiple steps prior to a trial.
"The obvious thing is they're arrested," she said.
Parker said there is a series of court proceedings the assailant goes through prior to a trial.
"It's a lot of court time," Parker said.
Both Dennis and Parker stressed the importance of the victim's peace of mind.
"It's important we do everything that we can to make that victim comfortable," Dennis said.
Parker said her method in working with sexual-assault victims is to be as patient and open as possible "so they can trust what they say is meaning something."
"For this specialty type of crime, it takes a special type of training," Jones said.
An investigator of sex crimes for two years, Parker addressed the hardest aspect of investigating sexual offenses.
"As cops, we try to compartmentalize things," Parker said. "You just try not to bring it home with you at the end of the day."
The 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act made it easier to get a “Jane Doe” rape kit.
As of July 2016, by law, victims of sexual assault have the right to a free forensic medical examination without having to report it to law enforcement.
Victims 17 or younger are exceptions to the protocol.
The physical evidence will be held for at least one year while the victim decides if she wants to report the crime to law enforcement or not. After 12 months, the physical evidence may be legally destroyed.
Having the option to get medical attention without mandatory reporting to law enforcement has helped, Martinez said. Victims get medical treatment and have access to testing for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, as well as counseling.
The Treehouse Advocacy Center in Thomasville also interviews rape victims.
While the Treehouse's clientele is primarily children, adult sexual assault victims are interviewed by facility staff.
"That utilizes a lot of the same resources," said Jackla Lawson, Treehouse Advocacy Center executive director.
The Treehouse is able to produce a sexual assault kit for rape incidents, Lawson said. Whether interviewing a child or adult, Lawson stressed the importance of the forensic interview and the Treehouse overall.
"We know that we have a purpose in finding out if they are safe and that is our main job," Lawson said. "We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to talk to someone if they are not feeling safe."
RAINN estimated 94 percent of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms during the two weeks after the incident, with 30 percent reporting PTSD symptoms nine months after.
Victims are at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
There are avenues that allow victims to get the help they need after an assault.
The first thing to do is to get to a safe place.
It may be a hospital, a rape crisis center or a law-enforcement office. Obtaining medical attention is important, even if there are no visible injuries. It is also recommended that victims get a rape kit, or forensic medical exam, done.
While the process is time consuming and can be invasive, it is vital to collect as much evidence as possible and to ensure the victim is all right. If the victim is younger than the age of consent, it is mandatory to report any sexual assault to law enforcement.
Adult victims can choose not to report. Any physical evidence is kept for at least 12 months after it is collected and victims can decide what they want to do during that time.
While the legal definition of consent varies from state to state, in real life, consent is agreeing to engage in sexual activity each and every time.
The state of Georgia does not define consent in reference to sexual activity. However, consent has been interpreted as the permission of a person who is capable of giving such permission.
People younger than the age of 16 in Georgia are legally incapable of giving consent and any sexual activity with them is considered sexual assault.
Florida defines consent as intelligent, knowing and voluntary consent and does not include coerced submission.
In Florida, anyone who is mentally defective or incapacitated, either permanently due to a disease or defect or temporarily due to the influence of a narcotic, anesthetic or intoxicating substance is legally incapable of giving consent. Anyone who is physically helpless, such as being unconscious, asleep or otherwise physically unable to communicate unwillingness to an act is legally incapable of giving consent.
A victim who has been coerced into submission by the use of or threat of violence or threats of retaliation is legally incapable of giving consent.
The age of consent in Florida is 18. Anyone younger is legally incapable of giving consent and any type of sexual activity with them is considered sexual assault.
Giving consent for one activity at one time does not give blanket consent to continued sexual contact.
One common example is giving someone permission to borrow your car. Just because someone gives a person permission to borrow a car one time does not mean the person can borrow the car any time he feels like it.
Consent can be withdrawn any time as well.
“The second 'no' or 'stop' is mentioned, it is rape,” Manahan said.
So, what's the solution?
Gottry said if society was more open about sexual violence, victims may be more willing to talk about it.
Martinez said that people talking about it and being open about it makes it easier for victims to report.
“They’re more comfortable and they feel more people will believe them,” she said.
Gottry said law enforcement is actually begging Another Way to get into the schools as early as the elementary level to teach safe touch.
Martinez agreed with the importance of starting young.
“Teaching body safety starts at home. The best way to prevent sexual assault is to talk to your children. If they tell you something, believe them. Have an open discussion about their body and the correct names for body parts.
“It isn’t a one time discussion, it takes a constant dialogue,” she said.
For adults, Martinez said it is important to report.
“If someone has done it once, they’ve probably done it multiple times."
Both males and females should take action to prevent assaults.
“When out, be with friends. Do not let someone walk off with someone they don't know,” Manahan said. “If you see a female that is intoxicated, don't let her wander off. Call the police if need be and we can always give people a ride.”
As for what constitutes an assault, it's simple: No means no, experts agreed.
“You rarely have witnesses to rape and it can be a 'he said, she said,'” Manahan said. “We do see some reports out of spite and for true victims that is a horrible thing to go through.”
“I’d say that with a lot of these offenders, for the public, knowing who your neighbors are is important,” Detective Beckham with the Georgia Sex Offender Registry Task Force said. “Sex offenders might give me an address but then they’ll end up finding someone special in their life, and it’s usually that person that they end up living with. I might not know that information, because if (an offender) is on probation or parole, that gives them all the reason in the world to try and conceal their whereabouts — not because of the (sex offender) registry per se but because they know they’re not supposed to be around kids, they know they’re not supposed to be within 1,000 feet of child care or a church, and because they know that, they want to conceal that. If people have a person in their neighborhood who they’re suspicious of, they need to call me and they need to report that.”
“Be aware of your surroundings. Know who you are with. And if someone or some situation makes you nervous, there may be a reason for it, even if you can't immediately figure out why,” Crossen said.
He added, "Unfortunately, the potential is always there. But there are things you can do to reduce that potential. If you don't know where you are going, if you don't know the people who are around you, then it may not be wise to go there. Now, I'm not saying that gives anybody the right to do anything to you. But I am saying that if you want to protect yourself, you do have to be careful."
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Jordan Barela, Charles Oliver, Will Woolever, Alan Mauldin, Desiree Carver, Jessie Box and writer Eve Guevara. John Stephen leads the SunLight team. To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.