On sexual assault: letters from the community

Dean Eramo understands how to support survivors

I am writing to express my support for Dean Nicole Eramo. As someone who has worked with sexual assault survivors in the criminal justice system for years, I have witnessed the effects of her work on behalf of those students taking the brave step to come forward with their experience.

I wish I could say that reporting a sexual assault to the criminal justice system is a panacea for all the ills created by the act. Those of us working in this field know it is not. The same friends, acquaintances and members of the general public who ask such questions as “why did you drink so much? “ "Why didn’t you just leave?” Why did you wear that kind of outfit?” “Why would you go to the bedroom alone with him?” “Why didn’t you fight back?” “Why can’t you remember more details?” “Why did your story ‘change’ from the first time you reported it to the 12th time you had to tell it?” “Why wouldn’t you go get a (horrifically invasive but necessary for a prosecution) rape kit?” “Why did you wait to report it?” are the same people who populate jury pools.

Dean Eramo knows this as well, as she has attended the trials and witnessed the outcomes and aftermath. Even the best criminal justice outcome does not always equal the best outcome for a survivor. The justice system prosecutes those who break the law not only for the victim, but for the safety of the community. It attempts to hold those responsible for their crimes, but even in the best outcomes it is “a rough approximation of justice,” as we know the toll it takes on the survivor in the process. Dean Eramo knows this as well, which is why she attempts to ensure those who come to her are aware of all their options and the risks and benefits involved in each of them. I have never heard from a survivor who worked with Dean Eramo that she encouraged or discouraged them to make a certain decision. Dean Eramo understands that the first step a sexual assault survivor can take can be vital to their recovery process. She, like those of us who work with survivors who reach out to the criminal justice process, knows they must be given the power back that was so violently taken away from them, even if that means their decision is not to pursue an investigation through the criminal justice system or the university administration process. Forcing a survivor to do anything only makes us complicit in their victimization.

Dean Nicole Eramo has played a vital role in the recovery of more survivors than I can count. Even if in the best of all possible worlds it was possible to imprison every rapist, would it be worth the price of destroying the lives of those who survived the crime? It would be great if we could say that our systems completely protect the victim in the process, but despite our best efforts and years of advocacy work, we are not there yet. Hopefully with greater awareness of the dynamics surrounding the process we will get closer, but vilifying people like Dean Eramo who are doing the best they can for survivors in the worst of circumstances gets us no closer to that end.

Maggie Cullinan

Director, Charlottesville Victim Witness Program


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