April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month and in Sonoma County the topic was front page news for all the wrong reasons. Various local government agencies adopted resolutions affirming their support for survivors and increased awareness. But the positive proclamations were blunted by breaking news where the current town of Windsor mayor and a recent Sebastopol mayor were accused of multiple sexual assaults. One was arrested and booked into jail and the other incident has torn the town of Windsor into bitter and upsetting divides. Hundreds of past sexual assault victims have had to relive their horrors and pains through days other communities might have been celebrating positive educational and awareness programs and events.

Rollie column

Rollie Atkinson

This week, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is approving a resolution in support of survivors of sexual violence and affirming their government entity’s commitment “to implementing policies and processes that prevent potential perpetrators from civic duties and public service.” The County of Sonoma is the region’s largest employer with over 4,000 managers and workers.

“Unfortunately, the local community has seen too many public leaders who are alleged predators and perpetrators of sexual misconduct and assault,” the county’s resolution reads. “We cannot remain silent on this issue.”

Shock and shame ripped through the community of Windsor when seven women came forward to accuse Mayor Dominic Foppoli of rape, unwanted sexual advances, entrapment and other potential felonies. The detailed accounts first reported on April 8 by the San Francisco Chronicle covered nearly two decades of alleged sexual violence cases by Foppoli, who became Windsor’s first directly-elected mayor last November. Foppoli has denied all the charges while investigations are moving forward.

Just days later, former Sebastopol mayor Robert Jacob was arrested and charged with 11 felony counts of sexual violence against a minor. Jacob has pled not guilty while he awaits trial and is on bail.

Sexual violence is a public health issue that directly impacts individual survivors and poses emotional and social trauma that can last an entire lifetime. The Foppoli case also shows that sexual violence can have wider impacts to an entire community. Where sexual violence victims feel too afraid to come forward with their stories and testimony, we all share the shame of perpetrating an unsafe and unsupportive environment.

We must all speak in direct words about rape and sexual predators. We must remove the stigma of shame and guilt from survivors. We must make the availability of legal and victim assistance, crisis support centers, shelters, counseling resources and law enforcement better known to all. We must engage in public and private efforts to end sexual violence and connect survivors with these critical services.

One in five women will be raped during their lifetime, as vulnerable children, trusting teens and preyed upon adults. Beyond rape, almost half of all women nationally will experience some form of sexual violence. Also, one in 17 men will be raped and one in five will be the victim of other forms of sexual violence.

Sonoma County has many programs and services to support sexual violence victims and to encourage mutual respect for all genders and intolerance for these acts against humanity. The county operates the Family Justice Center for victims and their children. It is a clearinghouse for social support, legal aid and emergency shelter. Victims can call 9-1-1 for emergency response or 707-565-8255 for other assistance. The Sonoma County YWCA operates a domestic violence and sexual victim hotline at 707-546-1234. The nonprofit Verity (ourverity.org) also provides emergency response and a hotline at 707-545-7273.

We’ve heard often about the concept of a social services and safety net, based on the image of a meshed netting to safely catch a falling high wire artist. That net has just failed too many victims over just one month’s time in April. To protect and prevent more sexual violence victims we need to replace this safety net with a shield and a permanent legal and social service infrastructure.

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