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Cry for Help or False Alarm?

On the evening of April 28, a 16-year-old Ashburn female reported that a stranger in his early 20s with bad acne sexually assaulted her on the W&OD bike trail near Claiborne Parkway. But it wasn’t true.

Only after the Sheriff’s Office had searched the surrounding area and alerted the community to the possible presence of a sexual predator roaming their backyards did the young woman admit to lying about the alleged rape. No reasons were publicly announced, and the Commonwealth Attorney declined to press criminal charges against the young woman.

Law-enforcement officials and victims’ rights advocates both struggle to decide what the proper consequence should be for a person who files a false sexual assault report. Kraig Troxell, public information officer for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, said, "False reports have caused fear in the neighborhoods, changing the places people let their kids go and what resources we have [available] for other cases."

Commonwealth Attorney Jim Plowman said that the filing of criminal charges depends on many factors, including the severity of the claim, the time and money invested into the case by law officials and the history of the individual. "A lot of times with the false claims [of sexual assault], it happens regarding children, arising in domestic disputes with custody issues at stake," said Plowman.

Filing a false police report is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable with fines up to $2,500, or up to 12 months in jail or both. The addition of an obstruction of justice charge leads to even graver punishments.

But Anne Kakel, education specialist at George Mason University’s Sexual Assault Services, believes that individuals who falsely cry rape are really making a call for help. "I would encourage the judge to order the person into psychological counseling instead of prison," said Kakel. "Prison’s probably the worst place for them. Counseling would be much more beneficial." But Kakel admits that it’s a difficult decision to make.

When Heidi DeLoveh worked on a hotline for sexual assault survivors, she was involved in several cases in which individuals abusively called the rape hotline as well as a local suicide hotline. DeLoveh, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at G.M.U. in the area of domestic violence, believes that those abusive hotline callers may have had another mental-health issue and various needs for attention, but did not know how to ask for help. Motivation differs from individual to individual, she says.

DeLoveh also encourages extra caution in prosecuting an individual who filed a false sexual assault report. "Women or men may withdraw their claim for other reasons besides it being false," she said.

FALSE SEXUAL ASSAULT reports impact the community and the available resources of local law enforcement, but they are not as prevalent as the media and some reports might suggest. The estimated percent of sexual assault reports that are false vary widely depending on the source. For example, a study by Eugene J. Kanin of Perdue University, examining 109 rape complaints in a Midwestern city from 1978 to 1987, estimates that 41 percent of the complaints were false.

However, the Uniform Crime Reporting Staff of the FBI reported that an average of 5.6 percent of all forcible rape offenses in the nation from 2001 to 2005 were unfounded. A rape case is classified as unfounded if it does not meet the state’s code for rape. The Virginia code asserts that there must be force, threat or intimidation aimed at the victim for the case to be considered rape, says Troxell.

"Unfounded could mean that there’s not enough evidence to move forward in the case or the victim is not cooperating," said Troxell. "It doesn’t necessarily mean that the claims are false."

Many victims’ rights organizations, including the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter and G.M.U.’s Sexual Assault Services, thus estimate that 2 percent of all sexual assault reports are false. They argue that this number is no greater than the false claims of other violent crimes, including murder and aggravated assault. "There is the perception that false reports are more common than they really are due to the high publicity of them in the media," said DeLoveh.

HANNA LINDSAY, co-director of LAWS, believes that the community’s eagerness to embrace false sexual assault reports reflects reasons more personal than media sensationalism or a trust in Kanin’s study. "The community wants to believe false reports because it makes us feel safer," said Lindsay. "But actually it makes the community less safe by empowering rapists."

Lindsay says that false sexual assault reports make the community less likely to believe real survivors and thus discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward. Victims’ rights advocates already say that rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. The National Crime Victimization Survey found that 59 percent of sexual assaults over the past five years in the U.S. go unreported to the police.

There are many reasons why advocates and educators believe that both men and women do not report sexual assault to the authorities. Fear of not being believed and shame are two of the most popular theories made by victims’ rights advocates to explain the underreporting of rape.

DeLoveh says that victims are blamed for sexual assault in ways they aren’t for other crimes. They’re asked why they were out so late, or why they were scantily clad, or why they were drinking and doing drugs. DeLoveh also says that victims are less likely to file charges against someone they know, the most common perpetrators of rape.

Tracey King, co-director of LAWS with Lindsay, says that there’s a minimization of the numbers of rape in Loudoun County, as there is nationally. The biggest misconception about rape, she believes, is the disbelief that it happens and who does it. "It’s not always the troll under the bridge or the man in the bushes," she said. "It’s your friend.