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Silenced No More: Victims of Sexual Abuse Speaking Out on Criminal Justice Reforms

May 20, 2019 07:55 AM

(ABC 6 News) -- During a time when criminal justice reform is sweeping the nation, sexual assault and sexual harassment cases have put a spotlight on victims.

The MeToo movement has empowered victims to speak out and share their stories including a woman who grew up in Byron.

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"I was a teenager when the abuse started and the incest and it's hard to describe," said Gwen Williams.

It's taken more than 24 years and hundreds of hours of therapy for Gwen Williams to say those words out loud.  Even more difficult, she still struggles with the damage caused from her abuse.  She suffers from mental illness, PTSD, and depression after being a victim of sexual assault.

"It's a violation of your soul, of your personality, your being," said Williams.

Williams grew up in Byron, she was the youngest of six children. "I felt invisible," said Williams, "both my parents valued boys, not girls."

"We were such a perfect family that something horrible couldn't be happening in the walls of our house," said Williams.

But they were.

She was 14-years-old when she was first sexually abused.  When Williams told her parents and other trusted adults, they didn't believe her. "That made me feel like I was crazy."

Williams says at times growing up, she even tried taking her own life.  "I just felt like there was no reason for me to exist, even God didn't care"

The abuse continued on for years until she was 18.  "When you're sexually assaulted, it goes to the very core of your being, it takes a while to be able to stand again and to speak out."

When she finally found her voice more than a decade later, it was too late.

In 2015, she went to the police to share her story, but the statute of limitations had expired.

"That's a very real struggle that we deal with every day," said Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem. 

One of the many reasons why Minnesota lawmakers proposed a bill this year with more than 30 authors across party lines amending the current law to remove the states statute of limitations.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem was a part of the discussions at the capitol.

"In a case where a statute of limitations has run out, our hands are tied, we can't do anything," said Ostrem.

According to Minnesota state law, when a victim reports the abuse to law enforcement, it triggers the clock for nine years.  The offender must be charged within nine years of when the incident happened or within three years of when it was referred to law enforcement.   Any charges after the statute of limitations is thrown out.

"To open that up, to expand it would greatly change our opportunity to provide justice for victims," said Ostrem

His office sees hundreds of sexual assault cases every year and Ostrem says they are some of the most difficult cases to prosecute.

"Can you imagine what it'd be like to come in and describe the most horrific sexual experience you've ever had in open court, it's hard and we need to understand why victims need that time to heal and to get strong because it takes them right back there," he said. 

"I think absolutely any person who has been a victim has the right to have their story told," said Malinda Hanson with the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office.

Detective Hanson has worked for the sheriff's office for more than 16 years. "A large portion of my case load that I handle are reports that are assaults that have happened in the past, they're now coming forward and reporting."

"Often times you're dealing with limited witnesses and limited evidence," she added.   Regardless of time, Hanson says the victims deserve a voice.

"I'm a mother and a sister and a an aunt and I would hate to have that person be a family member of mine and not have the opportunity to have their say and to not be given a fair chance," said Hanson through tears.

"After a lifetime of being told that I don't count and I don't matter, to be told by the justice system is also really disheartening," said Williams.   She said the proposed legislation and the recent national headlines surrounding sexual harassment and sexual assault is helping to give a voice to victims.

"It doesn't matter how long it takes for you to get to a point to tell your story, but you need to be believed when you do," said Williams.

Now that she has found her voice, she's not keeping quiet any longer.   Williams hopes to become an advocate for other victims so no one has to feel alone, again.

The house and senate versions of this bill would not be retroactive, meaning it will only apply to cases moving forward.  The bill did make it into the public safety omnibus bill.

Credits

Laura Lee

Copyright 2019 - KAAL-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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