While sexual offenses in Chippewa County have not seen a notable uptick since 2013, the county has been among high sex offense-rate counties for three out of the last five years, according to Department of Justice figures.

The county had 63 reported sex offenses in 2017, a rate of 102 per 100,000 people. That puts Chippewa in 20th place out of 72 counties for sex offense rates last year.

Dunn County sat even higher in 2017, with 105 sex offenses per 100,000 people, according to DOJ numbers.

Both counties are well above Eau Claire County, which had a rate of 84 – comparable with the statewide rate of 91.

Chippewa County has seen some fluctuation – its rate plummeted to 80 in 2016, spiked to 104 in 2015 and sat at 101 in 2014 – but was well above the statewide average three out of the past five years.

The newly released numbers are from a DOJ sex offense database, a compilation of sex offense information in Wisconsin between 2013 and 2017. Users can break down data by county, year, offense category, weapon type, victim age, offender age and more.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel released the database Tuesday.

Making the information public is critical to making changes to the justice system that will help survivors, and could help prevent others from becoming victims, Schimel said.

Many assaults go unreported

Of the Chippewa County sex offenses reported in 2017, the majority of victims—68 percent—were under 18.

Blythe, a sexual assault victim-services coordinator for the Family Support Center in Chippewa Falls, said the high number of child sex offenses that are reported is a telltale sign many adults haven’t reported their sexual assaults.

“(Child sex offenses) are more likely to be reported,” Blythe said. “If an adult finds out, mandated reporters are going to report.”

But the “majority” of Blythe’s clients do not report to law enforcement, she said – and she sees a minimum of 200 people each year.

Blythe, like other Center staff, does not use her last name at her job due to the position’s sensitive nature.

Compared to those 200 victims per year, just 63 sex offenses were reported in Chippewa County in 2017, according to DOJ figures.

A registered nurse at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital of Eau Claire said although she may see 75 to 100 patients each year, many of them choose not to report.

“It’s never the same for one patient to the next,” said Michaelene “Mike” Nye, a Sacred Heart sexual-assault nurse examiner.

There are pros and cons to reporting, Blythe said, and the decision is intensely personal.

“It can be very stressful and very traumatizing,” she said.

The complicated nature of the legal system, media attention, the stress of repeating a sex-assault story to dozens of different people and often a lack of evidence sometimes lead victims to stay quiet, Blythe said.

Although Blythe sees a large number of men and boys who visit the Center, they are far less likely to report than women.

Of the reported offenses in the county last year, 49 victims were female. Fourteen were male.

“Men are less likely to report because of the awful social stigma,” Blythe said. “Nobody wants to believe a man can be assaulted by a woman, and that certainly can be and is the case.”

Making the decision

The Family Support Center offers information about both options, Blythe said, and helps victims make a decision.

“There’s a lot of great reasons to do it … but it’s a very difficult crime to prosecute, depending on what (offense) we’re talking about,” Blythe said. “It could get all the way through to a jury trial, and still we (might not) get a conviction.”

The Center does work with law enforcement for victims that choose to tell their story, and Blythe praised local agencies’ willingness to work with victims.

In a local hospital system, the number of victims fluctuates year to year, season to season, Nye said.

Working in a college town, Nye sees an uptick in sexual violence and assaults in the fall when students return to campuses, and often during high-traffic area music festivals.

Nye has also noticed more child victims than in the past.

“We see a lot more pediatric patients than we did even 10 to 15 years ago,” Nye said.

Sheriff’s Office sees general trend upward

While he hasn’t seen an immediate, large uptick in sex offense investigations, Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk has seen a general upward trend – and believes a larger number of victims are reporting than in the past.

He believes education and awareness are a big reason why he’s seeing more victims come forward.

“I think one of the reasons, years ago … the victim always thought, ‘It’ll never happen again,’” Kowalczyk said. “A lot of times, people were embarrassed to come down and make a report, regardless of the assault.

“But I think now with education, personnel and resources the county has, I think this may be why we’re seeing a spike in the number of cases we investigate.”

Kowalczyk advocates for reporting, he said.

“It’s like any crime,” he said. “If you don’t address it, don’t report it, the chances of it recurring are very strong.”

Data suggests in Chippewa County, the majority of offenders were people the victims knew.

Of the 63 reported offenses in Chippewa County in 2017, most of which involved minors, 23 offenders were known but not family, 16 were family members and 14 were current or former partners of the victim.

DOJ database to be updated

The DOJ sex offense database will be “refreshed quarterly,” according to a DOJ press release Tuesday.

The DOJ also hosts databases of arrests and other offenses.

Any method that gets more information about sexual offenses into peoples’ hands is a good thing, Nye said.

Public awareness of sexual assaults is “much greater now than it was 10 to 15 years ago,” Nye said: “Knowledge is power.”

Fixing the problem should begin in schools, Blythe said.

“Teaching in schools that it’s so important to get consent, teaching not to blame the victim,” Blythe said. “Anything we can do to break through those barriers … making sure victims know that what happened to them is never their fault, no one ever has it coming and that there’s resources available right here in Chippewa Falls.”

The Family Support Center offers free services to people who experience domestic violence and sexual assault, and can refer other individuals to outside resources. Contact the Center at 715-723-1138 or a 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-400-7020.

For the DOJ sex offense database, visit https://www.doj.state.wi.us/dles/bjia/ucr-sex-offense-data, or visit https://www.doj.state.wi.us/ and search for “sex offense data.”

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Chippewa Herald reporter

Sarah Seifert reports for the Chippewa Herald. Contact her with tips or story ideas at 715-738-1608 or at sarah.seifert@lee.net.

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