On October 1 a 13-year-old girl walking along a residential street in the far-west-side neighborhood of Austin was abducted at gunpoint, dragged into an abandoned building, and raped.
Over the next two months news of that crime was followed by reports of seven other rapes in the same neighborhood. A serial rapist was on the loose, police said, and women were warned to take special precautions. "We distributed fliers with a description of the rapist," says Elce Redmond, associate director of the Northwest Austin Council, a local community organization. "We targeted abandoned buildings and garages that are havens for rapists and drug dealers. And we asked that police keep us informed on convicted rapists who are getting let out of jail."
Lost amid the calls for caution and the cries for harsher penalties against rapists were the victims. Until now, that is. In January the Northwest Austin Council and the Westside Health Authority launched the Stop the Rapes Campaign, an integral part of which would be to establish 24-hour emergency-room counseling for rape victims. "The idea is to help victims get through one of the most traumatic and awful experiences they will ever face," says Linda Ellis, who counsels rape victims at Mount Sinai Hospital, at 15th Street and California. "We can no longer allow good people to go back into society without help."
Using as their guide programs already established at Mount Sinai and Michael Reese hospitals, the activists would like local hospitals to maintain a cadre of trained volunteers who could offer rape victims emergency-room counseling. A voluntary counseling program is a logical and relatively inexpensive service, yet no hospital west of Mount Sinai has one. On February 23 the authority and the council will sponsor a neighborhood meeting with officials from Bethany and Loretto, two west-side hospitals, and Oak Park and West Suburban hospitals, located just west of Austin in Oak Park. The activists hope to persuade these hospitals to create rape-victim programs.
"Austin is the largest community in Chicago," says Redmond. "Unfortunately, it has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the city, second only to Englewood's. And yet there is no program to counsel victims." Over the last two years there have been 25 cases of sexual assault in Austin, according to police. And those are just the reported cases. "A lot of women won't report a sexual assault case because it's a very painful and private issue to discuss," says Sandra Calvin, a member of the Westside Health Authority. "I was a victim, and I wouldn't talk to a stranger about it."
One reason for the increase in sexual assault cases is that the system is not sophisticated enough to rehabilitate all the offenders. For example, in January police arrested a 31-year-old Austin resident and charged him with five counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault and several counts of robbery. He had been released from prison in October 1991 after having been sentenced in 1984 on other charges of aggravated criminal sexual assault.
Activists also blame two decades of economic decline for the increase in crime. The unemployment rate among young men on the west side is well above the national average, and Austin is dotted with abandoned buildings and vacant lots that have become havens for drug dealers, prostitutes, and rapists. "I think it's safe to say that we're having a breakdown," says Redmond. "There's a lawlessness in the community--an attitude that you can do what you want to do. That you can get away with anything you want."
Over the last few years Austin residents have attacked the crime problem on several fronts. They have organized block clubs and pressed the city to landscape abandoned lots. They have forced delinquent landlords into court, demanding that run-down buildings be sold or at least boarded up. Mayor Daley recently named Austin as one of five communities to participate in an experimental community policing program--in which local police commanders and community groups will create crime-fighting strategies. "Things aren't hopeless--we can't give up hope," says Redmond. "You have to organize and mobilize your resources. That's what we're trying to do with our rape-victim advocacy program."
Ellis says the need for such a program is obvious to anyone who has spent time with a rape victim. "There is a tendency to treat rape victims like it's their fault for getting raped," she says. "Sometimes the woman can't even tell her own family. I've seen husbands who want to beat up their wives for getting raped. They come into the emergency room saying things like, 'I told you not to wear that.' Or, 'I told you you shouldn't go there.' I say this is America, and you should be able to wear anything you want and go anywhere you want without being raped."
Rape victims sometimes have to spend 12 to 16 hours in the hospital, taking medical tests and answering police questions. The experience in the emergency room only aggravates the trauma of the rape. "What happens to these people is brutal, and you can never predict how anyone is going to handle it--that depends on the victim and the crime," says Ellis. "Being a Christian woman, I bring my Bible to help give them strength. If they don't want to hear that, I just listen. Sometimes they just want to vent.
"I once counseled a woman who had been raped by four different men. When I got to the emergency room, that poor woman was like an animal, huddled up under the face bowl. She didn't want to come out; she didn't trust anyone. She didn't want anyone to touch her. It took me four hours of talking to get her to come out. The police were saying she had to take off her clothes. They wanted her to stand on a sheet and undress so any evidence falls on the sheet. That's what they usually do. But I made the police wait. I wanted this woman to have all the time she needed."
Rape victims also complain of treatment by police, doctors, and nurses. "The police don't always get to the hospital right away, sometimes they take a couple of hours making it over," says Ellis. "And some of our doctors and nurses can be a little insensitive about how they handle things like giving penicillin shots. That can be very painful; it hurts trying to push that penicillin through your vein. You've got to remember that there's a human being there."
While hospitals are required by state law to provide some sort of rape counseling, critics say the law is riddled with loopholes. "The law does not get too specific about exactly how much counseling is required," says Phyllis Pennese, executive director of the Chicago Sexual Assault Services Network. "Unfortunately, a lot of hospitals get away with having their social workers handle rape cases. These social workers are not always on duty around the clock, so they aren't there when they are most needed--when rape survivors first come in. Later, the rape survivor might get a follow-up call from a social worker. But that's not good enough."
The state law also exempts Catholic hospitals from offering rape-victim counseling. Officials from these hospitals objected to having to give rape victims advice about obtaining abortions or receiving the morning-after pill.
Another reason for the lack of rape-victim counseling is the cutbacks in inner-city health coverage. On the west side three hospitals have closed in the last five years, unable to keep pace with rising health costs. "It's not just a problem with rape-victim programs, we don't have any trauma centers west of Mount Sinai, which is on California--and that's several miles from here," says Leola Spann, executive director of the Northwest Austin Council. "People may not realize it, but we're facing a crisis."
Pennese, however, says it's not expensive to set up a rape-victim counseling program. "A hospital doesn't have to employ anyone," she says. "They can mobilize community people to volunteer. The only expense is to provide pagers for the volunteers, so they can be called to the hospital on any notice. The only thing you really need is for the hospital officials to acknowledge the need for such a program. About ten years ago there was an attitude on the part of health officials that they didn't want nonprofessionals hanging around the emergency room. That attitude has changed dramatically, however. Hospitals like Michael Reese and Mount Sinai have around-the-clock volunteer programs that are very successful. These should be the models."
Hospital officials had different reactions to the proposal. Officials at Bethany and Loretto did not return phone calls. Oak Park's publicist said she was not aware of the upcoming meeting. And Joann Rubeck, West Suburban's director of community relations, said her hospital already offers counseling for rape victims. "There is a protocol that's followed when a rape victim comes here," says Rubeck. "Our social worker is called to stay with the victim through the process. Then they refer them for follow-up counseling."
But Ellis says that a volunteer program is more thorough. "With a volunteer program, there is someone on call every day," says Ellis. "With a social worker, you might not be able to get her after work hours, even if she is supposed to be wearing a beeper."
All four hospitals have agreed to send someone to the February 23 meeting, says Ellis. "I hope we don't find any resistance," she says. "Basically, I think this is a good idea that these hospitals just have to learn about."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.