As more conversations are on the rise nationally surrounding sexual abuse, assault and misconduct from Hollywood to the USA Gymnastics team, the common thread of these abuses seems to be growing — or more women are starting to speak up.
While actresses and gymnasts are finding their voices, a local group of women in Sequim has started “The Beginning,” a coalition that is starting a conversation in the community surrounding the topics of sexual assault, abuse and misconduct involving adolescents in the community.
“The Beginning” was started last spring by Sequim residents Shenna Younger and Bertha Cooper after sharing their survivor stories of sexual abuse as children. Younger posted her survivor story on Facebook last April and caught the attention of Cooper, who told Younger, “We are sisters.”
These two women and their steering team, “The Beginning,” are ready to break the silence on these issues in Clallam County with “Keeping Our Kids Safe,” a forum, scheduled for 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22, at the Sequim High School Auditorium, 601 N. Sequim Ave.
“We’re seeing this as a beginning, an introduction — starting the community conversation,” Cooper said.
The forum features a panel of speakers including: Clallam County Commissioner Mark Ozias; Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols; Healthy Families Executive Director Becca Korby; Sequim Police Department’s Det. Sgt. Darrell Nelson and Det. Devin McBride, Cooper and Younger.
Organizers said the forum’s primary audience is parents and caregivers of children to shine a light on what is happening in the community. After the panel of speakers, the forum will open up to the audience for a question-and-answer session and a discussion about the group’s next steps.
“We realize that we have a huge problem (in the community),” Younger said. “We need to do something to address this.”
“This is happening to girls with two parent families, parents that are engaged and active participants in their children’s lives, and (girls) don’t feel like they can tell them,” she said. “Parents need to know what’s happening and how to prevent (what’s happening) or how to take action.”
The group also is partnering with speakers such as commissioner Ozias and Nichols, the county prosecutor, who will speak about how the county is taking on issues.
“When the recent 2017 County Health Assessment came out, some of the ones that really stuck out to me was youth,” Ozias said.
The assessment said 20 percent of 10th-graders feel unsafe at school, 15 percent of eighth-graders have been made to feel unsafe by a boy/girlfriend in the past year and 17 percent of 10th-graders have been made to feel unsafe by a boy/girlfriend in the past year.
“There is no doubt that sexual violence and sexual misconduct across the whole spectrum of activities is one of the factors that contributes to many of those negative health indicators,” Ozias said. “I’m grateful for the work and organization of an idea that Shenna and Bertha had and the work they’ve done to pull the program together. I’m looking froward to being a part of the conversation.”
Nichols also will be providing information on how his office handles sexual assault in different scenarios, data on its prevalence in Clallam County and the topic of consent.
“We have a commitment as an office to the community to stop these crimes when they occur,” Nichols said. “We spend a lot of time dealing with the investigations and prosecution of sexual assault in Clallam County, both adult and child victims.”
Nichols said to his knowledge this forum is the first of its kind in the county and he is excited to participate because it allows his office to be proactive in preventing sexual assault in the community.
“We’re usually brought in after the fact, after something has happened,” he said. “Participating in the forum is a limited opportunity to be proactive.”
Cooper and Younger said this forum is the first step in addressing the issues of sexual assault, abuse and misconduct involving adolescents in the community and they hope to get input from forum attendees on what their next steps could look like.
“We really want to hear from the community on the 22nd,” Younger said. “We want to be open to the conversation of what our next step will be.”
Organizers said they are interested in potentially expanding these conversations to neighboring cities, such as Port Angeles and Forks, to make this a county-wide conversation. Nichols also said he hopes other communities show interest in these topics as well.
“We’re hoping the community and parents pick up on it and feel a sense of responsibility,” Cooper said.
“People don’t understand what’s going on and they need to come and hear what’s going on and help be part of the solution,” Younger said.
“It’s not one person, it’s not 10 people; everybody needs to be a part of this solution because it does need to end.”