By Julie Muhlstein
A courageous voice. Thousands of listeners. An account of sexual abuse and survival.
Issues surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, including Thursday’s appearance by his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, have sparked a nationwide conversation about sexual assault and those who come forward to say they are victims.
Allegations against Kavanaugh, chosen by President Donald Trump to fill retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat, have come at a time that’s seen Bill Cosby sentenced in a sexual assault case, disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar sent to prison for molesting gymnasts, the ongoing Catholic Church child-abuse scandal, and career-dashing accusations against Hollywood and media industry stars and moguls.
And that courageous voice cited at the start of this column? She’s a young woman, now a Bothell police officer, who has told and told and told her story of nightmarish sexual abuse as a girl. She was believed. Her abuser, her biological father, is in prison.
Ivy Jacobsen testified during three trials — the first two ended in mistrial when juries couldn’t agree on a verdict. With those ordeals behind her, she received a standing ovation on June 10, 2014, when she spoke at Lake Stevens High School’s commencement.
As a graduating senior, Jacobsen shared with some 6,000 people at Xfinity Arena her harrowing story of molestation, rape, secrecy, and what happened after she told a school friend about the abuse. Her father was convicted of child rape and child molestation in 2013.
In July 2017, Jacobsen became an officer with the Bothell Police Department. She spoke of the trauma she experienced and her pursuit of a law enforcement career in a video on the website of the Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center. The Everett center, which provides services to child victims of physical or sexual abuse, was a haven providing support throughout her ordeal.
While praising Jacobsen’s courage, Vanderburg noted an issue raised since the Kavanaugh allegations surfaced: Why don’t sex-abuse victims immediately report what happened to them?
“One of the first reasons, a symptom of trauma is avoidance. They don’t want to talk about it or share it,” said Vanderburg, who has worked as a mental health clinician. Beyond that is “the whole layer of shame.”
Perhaps a victim was drinking, or received some privilege from the perpetrator, Vanderburg said. “They may think, ‘If I hadn’t been in the situation, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.’” There may be worries about the economic results of revealing abuse, or harm to family relationships.
Someone may also be wary if they’ve seen other victims not being believed. “It’s demoralizing,” Vanderburg said. “Why would you want to join that list of people, and be discredited?”
Melissa Mertz is manager of the Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse. The Everett-based center, which sees victims of physical and sexual assault, operates a 24-hour crisis line (425-252-4800). It provides the medical component, including rape kits, as part of a larger team. That team includes law enforcement, prosecution, child protective services, victim advocacy and mental health agencies.
The center is only required to report sexual assault to law enforcement if a victim is under age 18, Mertz said, but can offer services to any victim. “It’s one of the hardest crimes to really get a sense of the scope, it is so under-reported,” Mertz said. “They don’t disclose to family. They don’t report to police.”
When a victim advocate at the center gets a call from someone wondering what to do when a person discloses a sexual assault, Mertz said that caller is told to say two things: “I believe you.” And “it’s not your fault.”
“By listening, you give that opportunity for them to share or not to share,” Mertz said. “The other important piece, you don’t want to ask them too many questions or interrogate them. It really is just listening, affirming.
“Victim blaming is a huge part of rape culture. It really leads to that person blaming themselves, and the shame and guilt in that,” Mertz said. “It’s unfair to judge what that person chose to do to survive — in the next moment, the next day or the next 30 years.”
Vanderburg, a specialist in trauma treatment, sees good news in the help available today. “They never will not have been abused. They’ll know,” she said. “They may always have a mark of growing up next to the barbed wire, but they can grow into a good strong tree.”
And she sees hope in the “Me Too” movement. “Why now?” Vanderburg said. “Was it that we just reached that pivotal spot, there was one more feather on the pile? … There has been phenomenal progress.”
Mertz said the current climate is starting conversations about “what consent is and is not — an affirmative yes, not the absence of a no.”
“I’m very encouraged by the number of people who have the bravery, the courage to come forward,” said Mertz. But she added, “We’re not in a changed world yet.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse operates a 24-hour crisis line: 425-252-4800.