August 24, 2018ALEXANDRIA — As a result of the recent incident in Bedford where school guidance counselor Kristie Torbick was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student, Alexandria Police held a community forum on Aug. 9 to discuss the topic of children and sexual or domestic assault. Joining Chief Donald Sullivan and Officer David Suckling, who is also the Chief of Police in Danbury, was Meg Kennedy Duggan of Voices Against Violence and Jessica Eskeland from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Sullivan said he was outraged by the Bedford case, especially to hear character witnesses not only defend Torbick, but call the student the "pursuer." He was also incensed to listen to people talk about the relationship between the two as an "affair" when the victim was not old enough to consent to such actions.
"I'm going to use the word rape here because that's what it was. It wasn't an affair, it was rape," he said.
Rape, Sullivan noted, is one of the most underreported crimes due to the lengthy process of evidence gathering and the rigors of testimony that victims are subjected to. He stated that in Alexandria however, the police are progressive in their approach for prosecuting such crimes and do all they can to get victims any help they may need along the way.
"We want people to know they're safe here," he said.
One of the biggest resources his department has for victims is Voices Against Violence, a nonprofit organization based in Plymouth where people can find safety and support when faced with domestic or sexual violence.
Duggan explained that Voices is one of 13 crisis centers in New Hampshire that operates under the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and covers 18 towns in the region.
"We provide direct service to survivors of assaults, bullying, and sadly, even human trafficking," she said.
Voices Against Violence works with police departments, hospitals and mental health clinics to not only get victims the help they need but to go through it all with them if needed. They also operate a 24-hour crisis hot line where people don't even have to be in the midst of a crisis to reach out to them.
In addition to those services, Duggan said they also provide public education where issues such as sexual and domestic violence are discussed, assuring people there is help available if they ever find themselves in need.
"We believe people. We want them to know we are there for them," said Duggan.
As part of that education outreach, representatives of Voices Against Violence have established relationships with many area schools, especially those in the Newfound Area School District. "Tina" from Voices also meets with health classes at the high school where they discuss not only inappropriate behaviors and assaults but how to recognize if someone they know is being victimized. For younger children, they limit talks to simpler "safe touch" and "body safety" discussions and what to do if someone violates the rules of proper contact.
"We've worked with a number of students, staff and faculty at Newfound who have come to us for help," she said.
Those present that night were pleased to hear that Newfound area children are learning not only what to do but who they can turn to for help. They hoped that parents in other districts will encourage their schools to invite Voices in to educate their students on the subject as well.
Besides Voices, Sullivan said they also work with child advocacy centers where cases involving children are handled through a team approach consisting of representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors, medical personnel and mental health experts. When an assault is reported the child meets one-on-one with a specially trained interviewer as the others listen from another room and the child's statements are recorded.
"One huge benefit of this is that the child only has to tell the story once. It's been incredibly beneficial," Sullivan said.
He also pointed out that in the case of sexual assault on a minor, the statute of limitations is different than that of other crimes. A child victim has up to 22 years from the day they turn 18 to report it.
"Anyone who was assaulted as a child who is in their 20s's or 30's should know they can still come forward," said Sullivan.
The cost of seeking professional counseling, attending court procedures and other expenses incurred by victims is sometimes a barrier in reporting a crime but Sullivan said there is now help in that situation. A Victims Compensation Fund is available through the Attorney General's Office for people who suffer financial hardship as a result of an assault.
There is also a positive side to the Bedford case, the chief stated, as it is bringing the topic of an adult/child assault to the forefront so children learn what is inappropriate and where they can turn for help. He said he was glad to hear that students in Bedford also rallied to support their classmate by sending more than 60 letters to the court before the trial was held.
"Hopefully the next generation coming up is already well on their way to being on the right side of things like this," Sullivan said.
To learn more about Voices Against Violence or the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence please visit their Web sites, www.voicesagainstviolence.net and www.nhcadsv.org.