By Jeanne Charles, managing attorney and Henna Schafer, staff attorney

To mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are devoting our next few Big Ideas blogs to education on this important topic. Perhaps even more than crimes like domestic violence or stalking, sexual assault can feel like an issue in the shadows - difficult to discuss, dramatically under-reported, and often a burden survivors carry in silence. For these reasons, it’s critical that we advocates shine a light on reality.

The truth is, in Ohio, over 10,000 incidents of sexual assault occur every year.

And those are only the ones reported.

Due to the sensitive nature of sexual assault, and because it is usually a crime that happens in private and may not come to light for years, there can be many complications in seeking criminal prosecution and accompanying protections for survivors. Often, prosecutors don’t feel they have what they need to ultimately get a conviction in a criminal case. This can leave the survivors who seek assistance from the justice system feeling powerless and unsafe.

Many of us are aware of the Civil Protection Order for circumstances of domestic violence, but fewer know about a remedy called the Sexually Oriented Offense Protection Order (SOOPO). The SOOPO is an under-utilized but powerful tool that can help survivors of sexual assault who — for whatever reason — can’t access protection in the criminal system. They are a unique solution that can give survivors choice, autonomy, voice, and protection in a system where that might otherwise be failing them. They provide similar protection as other protection orders — ordering the perpetrator to stay away, not to contact or threaten the survivor, or go to the survivor’s work or home.

SOOPOs can be filed under the same statute and on the same form as the  Stalking Civil Protection order. Essentially, the survivors seeking the Order checks a box to put this remedy into play. SOOPOs have the same burden of proof as a civil protection order — and a lower burden than what is required for criminal conviction. In many ways, the SOOPO is designed to remove barriers to protection for survivors of sexual assault — even as compared with domestic violence or stalking orders. For example, the statute only requires the assault happened once (not a pattern as with stalking) and the petitioner does not need to prove that the protection order is necessary to stop future abuse (as with domestic violence). The legislature seemingly understood that survivors of sexual assault naturally fear future harm after just one violation and didn’t put unnecessary burdens or add extra hoops. 

There are different considerations survivors and their advocates focus on when determining if and when to file for a SOOPO. These include the status of any criminal investigation or prosecution, the survivors’ comfort with testifying and confronting their abuser, and the length of time that has passed since the assault occurred. Filing too soon can give information to the assailant that they wouldn’t otherwise have to defend their criminal case. Discovery — or the sharing of information — can be broader in a protection order case than in a criminal prosecution.  Ideally, every survivor would have a lawyer to provide advice and guidance to navigate these nuances.

The bottom line is, SOOPOS are a passion point for our team. A couple case stories will help our readers understand why:

Take Hannah, who survived a sexual assault perpetrated by a family friend years ago. After a family meeting, it was decided not to press charges. But over time, this decision ate her up — impacting her physical and mental health in a number of ways. The perpetrator, who was still in her life, started changing too. Refusing to take accountability. So after waiting years, she decided to file a police report. Prosecutors felt she waited an unreasonably long time and didn’t feel they could be successful in criminal court. And even in the pursuit of a SOOPO, the magistrate was initially unsupportive and discouraging. But Hannah felt it was important to give voice to her story and pursue the best remedy available to her. She stood firm and was able to powerfully relay her story. When confronted with the evidence, the magistrate granted the protection. And with it, a small bit of affirmation to Hannah at that point in her journey.

Take the case of minor child Cierra who had been sexually abused by her uncle at the age of nine. For various reasons, the prosecutor was not going to pursue criminal changes. The circumstances did not meet the requirements for domestic violence or stalking, and advocates knew they would need to pursue any protection under the SOOPO remedy. Complicating things and adding an urgency to the matter, Cierra’s parents were no longer together and her father lived with the offending uncle. She was at risk of exposure to him every time her father had time with her. A full contested civil hearing was held to prove what happened to Cierra, using testimony from a forensic interview she underwent at a child advocacy center. There was enough evidence to convince the magistrate that this had indeed happened to Cierra and that she needed protection to keep her away from the uncle. Without the SOOPO, the system may have entirely failed this little girl.

Take the case of Alissa who was assaulted by someone who was first as a consensual sexual partner. During one encounter, her partner crossed a boundary which constituted sexual assault. Alissa did many things afterward that showed she had been assaulted — she called her friend, she had a rape kit completed. But prosecutors determined not to press charges due to the consensual backdrop of the case. At the civil hearing, the perpetrator denied the encounter happened at all. Upon cross examination, however, he wasn’t credible and the magistrate went from hostile to believing the survivor. Alissa, on the other hand, was very transparent and her testimony was powerful. The Court — through the SOOPO — ultimately made a finding that the sexual assault happened, empowering Alissa even further.

SOOPOs can make all the difference for survivors of sexual assault. They provide an avenue of autonomy, validation, and protection for survivors. In our perfect world, sexual assault would end. Next best, every survivor of sexual assault would have a trained legal advocate to understand their case, explain their options, advise on timing, and help access the best remedy. The SOOPO is a critical tool in this response.