"While it’s not our role to ensure safety on college campuses, we can help by underscoring the importance of having policies and protocols in place. We can educate students about the consequences of being bystanders."
Peg Langhammer has been executive director of Day One (formerly the Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center of Rhode Island) for more than 25 years. A founding member of the attorney general’s Task Force on the Sexual and Violent Physical Abuse of Children, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Rhode Island Children's Advocacy Center.
Langhammer is a past president of the Board of the National Children’s Alliance, which is the national association of Children’s Advocacy Centers. She is a founder and served as chairwoman of the R.I. Sex Offender Management Task Force, and acted as chairperson of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth & Families Advisory Committee on Gender Specific Programming. She is also a former member of the R.I. Board of Review for Sexually Violent Predatory Behavior, and a member of the R.I. Criminal Justice Oversight Committee.
PBN: How many individuals have you served so far this year and are you seeing an increase in the need for services and the reporting of sexual assault?
LANGHAMMER: This year, to date, we've served nearly 9,000 people, including both our clinical and victim services as well as education and training. This is a significant increase over last year. While this is concerning, we also know that reports of abuse reflect only a small percentage of actual incidents. Consistent with our campaign, “It’s time to talk about it,” we are working to create a community where victims can talk about the abuse without fear or shame. Our ONE VOICE Survivor Advocacy Group offers survivors of abuse a forum to share their stories in an effort to end sexual violence.
PBN: How are you serving Rhode Island's large student population and how have you helped ensure safety at the state's many school campuses?
LANGHAMMER: While it’s not our role to ensure safety on college campuses, we can help by underscoring the importance of having policies and protocols in place. We can educate students about the consequences of being bystanders. That means encouraging students to get involved, protect and support each other, and stop abusive behavior when they see it, particularly when drugs and alcohol are around. The university's role is to promote safety on campus. Our colleges need systems in place for effective responses to victims of sexual assault, working closely with law enforcement to develop procedures that enable victims to report these crimes. Additionally, universities should support victims in their decision to press charges throughout the process, and ensure a safe environment for them after the assault.
Day One also has a robust outreach and training program targeted to high schools and middle schools. Through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the R.I. Department of Health, we proactively schedule workshops with schools as well as respond to schools that request workshops after an incident with one of their students or staff members. We also provide educational programs for staff and parents.
PBN: If you could set the record straight with the public on the incidence of sexual assault in Rhode Island, what do you consider the most important statistic that people should know?
LANGHAMMER: There are so many issues associated with sexual assault that the public needs to understand. Probably the most jarring is that one in four girls, one in six boys, will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. These are not isolated incidents. This is a major health epidemic that needs to be addressed.
We also can't ignore the fact that more than 75 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. People still believe that sexual assault is a “stranger” issue, and along with that comes a lot of myths and misconceptions. Many times, society blames the victim for what happened or thinks that the victim did something to cause the assault. Society needs to understand that no matter what – if the victim was drinking, if the victim had previous consensual relations with this person, if the victim was doing something illegal, such as drugs – the victim never deserves what happened to them and it is never their fault. The blame should be put on the perpetrator. The biggest reason why victims are reluctant to report is the fear that no one will believe them or that they are to blame for the assault.
Technology has added a new layer to the shame that comes with being a victim of sexual assault. With increasing frequency, we hear about another case where a teen is raped and often pictures and/or videos are taken and shared, followed by lots of harassment. We know many more of these incidents are happening – nationally and locally – but may not make the news.
PBN: What are the most important steps to take when dealing with child abuse?
LANGHAMMER: Rhode Islanders are required by law to report known or suspected cases of child abuse to the state's 24-hour hotline, 1-800-RI-CHILD. We encourage people to call us for immediate crisis intervention services and to help them navigate the process, including, if appropriate, a forensic interview through the Children’s Advocacy Centers with one of our trained interviewers.
It’s important that children are immediately provided with a safe environment and to assess whether or not the child needs medical attention. We work closely with Hasbro Children's Hospital's Child Protection Program – a tremendous Rhode Island resource.
We can help schools provide effective, sensitive, intervention services for a school/parish/organization for all involved – parents, children, staff. This can come in the form of a meeting, education workshops, follow-up, clinical and CAC referrals, and assistance with creating/updating policy and procedures. We also have education workshops for adults and professionals on how to respond to child sexual abuse.
PBN: Is Rhode Island doing enough to manage sex offenders? What if anything should the state do differently?
LANGHAMMER: Ten years ago, some concerned community leaders in the state established the R.I. Sex Offender Management Task Force, an inter-agency, multidisciplinary collaboration to assess the strengths and gaps of current approaches to dealing with adult and juvenile sex offenders and establish priorities for enhancements. The task force developed a comprehensive, statewide plan and vision and has stayed on track to accomplish many of its initial objectives. Today, sex offender-specific trained probation and parole officers work in collaboration with local and federal law enforcement, as well as service providers and victim advocates, to effectively balance victim and community safety while holding offenders accountable, with an emphasis on offender rehabilitation.
Rhode Island still needs to develop a certification process for treatment providers, with an oversight system for monitoring treatment standards. This issue is a priority of the task force.