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Sexual assault reports on the rise in Petaluma

Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 11:44 a.m.

While much of Petaluma's reported crime was down in 2012 compared to the year before, one particular area not only increased — it more than doubled.

According to statistics recently released by the Petaluma Police Department, rapes in Petaluma increased from 12 reported cases in 2011 to 25 in 2012. The spike made it the most cases the department has seen in the last five years.

Petaluma Police Sgt. Tara Salizzoni, who heads the investigations unit at the department, said that the majority of reported rape cases in 2012 came from officials like doctors and healthcare providers reporting the incidents to the police. She added that approximately 10 of the cases last year stemmed from what she described as alcohol-related incidents where victims or perpetrators may have been drinking.

While Salizzoni couldn't conclusively say why the number of reports had increased, local anti-rape groups suggested that it could stem from heightened awareness in the county leading to more people reporting sexual assaults.

“The outreach and the media attention in the county has increased,” said Christine Castillo, who used to run the gang prevention program Project TUFF (Teens Uniting For the Future) in Petaluma. “Schools, universities, organizations and people in general are now on board. People are not dismissing rape and sexual violence as they have in the past.”

Castillo, now the executive director of Verity in Santa Rosa, a group that works to eliminate sexual assault, said that, countywide, there has been a 50 percent increase in reported rapes and sexual assaults in the last six months. She said that she did not necessarily credit the jump in reporting to an increase in crime, but more likely to an increase in the number of victims coming forward.

Verity and other local advocacy and awareness groups have been busy in the county, working to assist victims of sexual assaults and rapes, something Castillo credits to the rise in reported cases this year. In Petaluma, Verity rape counselor Michelle Doyle works at the Petaluma Police Department two days a week.

In Petaluma particularly, this year has been a time of heightened awareness surrounding domestic violence following the tragic murder of Meadow School teacher Kim Baucom, who was gunned down by her estranged husband, Kevin Conover, last April. According to court documentation, Baucom had suffered domestic violence at the hands of Conover before she was killed.

In the wake of Baucom's murder, local rape and domestic violence advocate Trisha Almond — who heads up the organization Guided to Safety and organizes V-Day Petaluma, a community campaign to end violence against women and girls — said that she was amazed at how many people were unaware of resources for sexual assault victims, like the counselor at the Police Department.

She said she was shocked by the number of reported rapes in Petaluma doubling during the past year. Almond hopes that seeing how the community pulled together after the murder of Kim Baucom will help other victims step forward. After Baucom's death, the Fabulous Women of Petaluma hosted an awareness day with speakers talking to audience members about domestic violence, dating relationships, rape and other issues. After the event, two women in violent relationships stepped forward and asked for help.

“We are so fortunate to be here in Petaluma, where you have organizations like Verity, and the YWCA and the Family Justice Center, that are all devoted to stopping these crimes,” said Almond. “In some areas, victims are not so lucky.”

For victims who may be struggling with reporting an assault, both Almond and Castillo say the crime is not the victim's fault. “The most important thing to remember is that it's not your fault,” Almond said. “Nothing gives anyone the right to hurt you, no matter what.”

Castillo agreed and reminded victims that asking for help is equally important. “Call our crisis line,” she said. “Victims can learn and understand what their options are so that they don't have to carry this.”

Anyone who has been the victim of a sexual assault can call the Verity crisis line at 545-7273. Anyone who knows someone who has been victimized, or would like more information, can call Verity's main line at 545-7270.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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