Couple teaches about hope and life after rape trauma

Apr. 24, 2013 @ 05:58 PM

Debbie Smith was repeatedly raped near her home in Williamsburg in 1989. Since then, she and her husband Robert Smith have used that trauma to lobby for better laws for investigating rapes and sexual assaults. In 2004, Congress passed the Debbie Smith Act, part of the Justice for All Act, which is intended to improve investigations of sexual assault crimes and services for the victims.

The Smiths now run the organization H-E-A-R-T (Hope Exists After Rape Trauma). They came to Durham on Wednesday to teach classes to volunteers, police officers and other professionals in observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The Durham Crisis Response Center sponsored the classes and sessions. Debbie Smith told the volunteers her story during the opening session held at N.C. Mutual Life Insurance.

On an afternoon in 1989, Debbie Smith went outside to check on a dryer vent. She left her back door unlocked. When she returned to the house, a stranger had made his way into the house. He took her into the woods near the home, blindfolded her and repeatedly raped her.

Her husband, a police officer, was upstairs asleep in the house. After she told him what had happened, she pleaded with him not to call the police because the rapist had threatened to kill her if she notified the authorities. He insisted that she report the crime and undergo testing, for which she is now grateful, she said.

That day “became the springboard for my life’s passion, my life’s work,” Smith said. “I may be one person, but I want you to know I am the voice of thousands.”

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in observance the organization End Violence Against Women International has adopted the theme “Start by Believing.” That campaign is designed to stress the importance of responding appropriately to sexual assault by believing the victim to ensure the victim can seek justice and other services. Debbie Smith spoke about some of the obstacles that she went through seeking justice.

While the medical examination was necessary to establish evidence, she said, it was still traumatic.

“The hospital visit proved almost as violating as the crime itself,” Smith said. “I had been very literally stripped of everything that seemed real … inside and outside, everything that identified me was gone. Even at its best, this exam is demoralizing.”

The love of her husband and two children kept her from committing suicide, she said. Six years later, in 1995, her husband told her that the man who had raped her had been found, and was already in prison for another crime.

“I felt validated,” Debbie Smith said. “Everyone would know that I was telling the truth. Within [me], the healing had begun.”

But Smith faced more frustration. The prosecutor in Williamsburg was reluctant to take her case, even asking her to drop the charges. That prosecutor eventually was appointed to a judgeship, and another prosecutor vigorously prosecuted her case, Smith said.

That will to fight to the end fueled the passion that informs the work she and her husband do, Smith said. She asked the volunteers gathered “to understand the significant role that you play after the trial is ended.”

Wednesday also was declared Denim Day. The Durham Crisis Response Center wants Durham residents to wear denim in support of Sexual Violence Awareness Month. Denim Day is a response to a 1998 Italian court ruling overturning a rape case because the victim’s jeans were too tight. The first Denim Day was organized in Los Angeles in 1999.