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Be Aware

Forum discusses sexual assault in Arlington County.

— At a forum on sexual assault on July 19 at the Fairlington Community Center, Theo Stamos, the Commonwealth's Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, said that in the 26 years that she has been a prosecutor, she has seen a change in Americans’ attitudes towards sexual assault and domestic violence.

One of the successes of "the movement against domestic violence and sexual assault in the awareness of sexual assault is that it's no longer a private matter," said Stamos. "Women know that it's not all right for your husband to beat the crap out of you the night he comes home from work. He can't do it. Not only can he not do it, but if you call the police, go to court, and you testify about it if you're a credible witness ... the guy's going to be prosecuted and he's going to go to the penitentiary or the local jail. It's a complete shift in the mindset of communities across the country where it's no longer tolerated.”

The forum was held in response to recent incidents in Arlington, such as a rape on the Four Mile Run trail and an assault at a parking garage in Ballston. The panel included representatives from the Arlington County Police Department, the Commonwealth Attorney's Office, the Arlington Commission on the Status of Women and Project PEACE, a domestic violence prevention program.

The panel said that residents of Arlington should remember to be safe and aware of their surroundings when in public as a precaution against sexual assault, particularly at places like bike paths.

"If you're asking what can the community members do, be vigilant," said Stamos.

Lt. Bruce Benson, commander of the Special Victims Unit at the Arlington County Police Department, told the audience to "be a good witness" if they see suspicious behavior by reporting it. He also warned against trying "to be hero. A witness to a crime or incident or even suspicious behavior is so much more valuable to the police department solving these sex crimes than any kind of intervention would. Don't be a victim yourself."

Jo Johnson, project coordinator for Project PEACE, discussed the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program. Johnson said that the purpose of the program to collect evidence from sexual assault victims in "such a way that is admissible in court." The SANE nurses also testify in court as expert witnesses.

However, she said that there are only 17 SANE programs in Virginia, and only one in the Northern Virginia at INOVA Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. She cited a recent example of a woman who reported being sexually assaulted in Alexandria. She went to a hospital in Alexandria, then was sent to the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, and then she was finally sent to INOVA Fairfax Hospital, where the SANE program is.

"She was seen in three ERs. It took so much time that they lost the ability to check her for body for drugs that she thought had been part of this rape," said Johnson. "We want to reduce that confusion."