ORLANDO — The number of Central Floridians seeking help for sexual assault has escalated sharply in the past year, victim advocates say, a trend they attribute to an increasing willingness by survivors to speak out.
At the same time, recent changes in Florida law — to clear a backlog of untested rape kits — are expected to increase arrests of the perpetrators, particularly serial rapists.
"We don't think that the crimes have necessarily increased dramatically, but we do think more people are coming forward," said Lui Damiani, executive director of the Victim Service Center of Central Florida, where the number of people seeking help has climbed 40 percent in the past year — to over 5,000.
That includes victims who seek crisis intervention, counseling, forensic exams, help navigating the legal system or aid in applying for victim-compensation funds. The number of calls to the center's 24-hour sexual assault hotline, for instance, grew 28 percent.
The VSC is the designated rape crisis center for Orange and Osceola counties and may expand into Seminole. At Haven of Lake & Sumter Counties, the number of sexual assault victims has climbed an estimated 65 percent in the past year.
"Some of those are survivors who were assaulted years ago, but they are just now coming forward to talk about it," said Nicki Rowe, Haven's sexual assault program director. Often, she said, a major news story will prompt victims to seek help.
Other advocates say there's also been a societal shift in attitudes.
"For so long, the public reaction in general was not to believe survivors when they came forward," said Theresa Prichard, advocacy director for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. "We have started to see that change — as in the Bill Cosby case and now with the case at Stanford (University). The public is starting to support the survivor."
The Stanford rape — in which Brock Turner, a 20-year-old student, was convicted of three felony charges in the rape of an intoxicated, unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus — has drawn international outrage in recent days after a California judge sentenced Turner to just six months behind bars.
In less than a week, over 1 million people have supported an online petition to oust the judge. Critics also have ridiculed Turner's father, who pleaded with the court to give his son probation for the crime, saying that prison was "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action."
By contrast, the victim — who read a poignant 12-page impact statement in court, facing Turner — has been heralded for her bravery. That sort of reaction, advocates said, may embolden other victims to come forward.
"Every time there's a high-profile case, it triggers some individuals to address what happened to them," said Shelley Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the VSC. "Victims don't feel so alone."
One man — a military veteran in his 60s — sought counseling at the center last year after seeing a VSC billboard that said "Healing Begins Here." Sexually abused by a neighbor as a kid, he had tried reporting the crime earlier — only to have his story questioned and be prescribed medication. The man, who did not want his name used for privacy reasons, is now in long-term therapy at the center.
But seeking counseling is one thing. Seeking justice is another. Even now many victims never report their assault to law enforcement.
According to a 2015 study from the U.S. Department of Justice, only a third of victims file police claims on sexual assault — and fewer still if the victim has been drinking.
"After an assault, there is often a lot of self-blaming that goes on," Prichard said. "Most victims know their perpetrator, so they might feel that somehow they contributed to it. Or they may be in denial or not wanting friends and family to know."
Or they may be discouraged by the conviction rate: Only six out of every 1,000 rape cases ends with incarceration.
That likely explains why the number of reports to victim advocacy centers is significantly higher than those to law enforcement. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement recently reported a 6.1 percent statewide increase in rape over the previous year, even as overall crime dropped. In Orlando, sex crimes increased 13 percent.
Yet laws and law enforcement are changing, if slowly. In 2015, Florida legislators passed the "43 Days Initiative Act" extending the statute of limitations for adult rape victims to file a claim from four to eight years. The law was named after an Orlando case in which the survivor, after seeking counseling, decided to pursue criminal charges, only to be told she was 43 days too late.
There is no time limit for filing criminal and civil cases in sex crimes involving children.
This year, after an audit revealed a backlog of at least 13,435 untested rape kits in Florida, lawmakers passed a bill to require law enforcement agencies to submit the kits to a state crime lab within 30 days if requested by the victim or a representative. It also requires the victim to be informed of the right to demand testing and requires the lab to process the rape kit within 120 days.
But it doesn't just speed up the process. The new law, which takes effect July 1, also requires testing on kits that may never have been analyzed before.
"Right now, for instance, a kit may be untested because the guy admits guilt and is sentenced for that one crime," Damiani said. "But under the new law, that kit will be tested and the information will go into the national database, and we may find out that the guy is a serial rapist who has committed crimes all over the country."
The change will likely help solve open cases, both in Florida and elsewhere, and put away repeat offenders for long sentences, he added.
"The law has the potential to make a dramatic impact," Damiani said.