OLA Launches Survey to Improve Reporting Processes for Child Victims of Sexual Assault
At age 7, Isabella Martinez was quiet, until she knew she could trust someone. Only then would her happy-go-lucky personality bubble to the surface.
At age 7, she loved to read, play piano and write about her days in her journal. She was praised for her kind, respectful and mature demeanor, and won a leadership award at school. She grew up quickly — looking after her younger siblings, ages 3 and 5, when her parents couldn’t — and spent her free time at the beach, leaning into a childhood innocence that was robbed from her.
At age 7, she was sexually abused for the first time, by a member of her own family. And she didn’t tell a soul.
“I didn’t even know what was going on at the time and I just knew it was something not to talk about because the perpetrator told me that I would get in trouble if I said anything,” recalled Martinez — now 24, from her home in East Hampton — whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “But part of me knew I should say something.”
The reason she chose not to speak up runs deeper than that, she explained. Within factions of the Latino community, there exists a culture of silence — a placing of shame and responsibility on survivors of sexual violence, as well as a fierce loyalty to family that comes at all costs, she said.
“I told myself, ‘I will never, ever speak about this. This is something I’m gonna carry to my grave,’” Martinez said. “That’s what I always said to myself. This is something I was going to carry to my death.”
Her story is an all-too-familiar one to the staff of the Organización Latino Americana (OLA) of Eastern Long Island, which recently released a bilingual survey for survivors of childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse, and their allies, to share their experiences and perspectives anonymously.
Its purpose is to better understand what a child goes through when reporting this crime and why some choose not to, according to OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez, as well as to learn more about roadblocks that may involve family, friends, or other influences that impede reporting.
“Especially in the Latino community, specifically, a lot of times the conversations about sexual abuse, sexual violence is very hush-hush,” Martinez said. “And so I think this is just really, really important to start a conversation about. That’s, essentially, how change happens.”
Nationwide, one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Of all victims under 18, 82 percent are female, the nonprofit reported.
But on the East End, according to 10 local police departments, only 0.5 percent of girls under age 18 reported sexual abuse or assault in 2020. The rate for boys was unavailable.
“Those numbers were much, much lower than the national average,” Perez said. “We know that, clearly, there are barriers. We don’t live in this perfect little bubble where no one is experiencing sexual assault as a child. I won’t believe that.”
In writing the survey, Perez and Christine Velia, director of legal advocacy, consulted with domestic violence agencies and organizations focused on survivors of sexual assault across Long Island to get a comprehensive perspective. The gathered information from the survey will help inform OLA’s ongoing work with police departments and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office related to child victims of sexual assault, as well as shine a light on the gaps in support structures that child victims and their families may be encountering.
It is a tool that Martinez said she wishes she’d had as a child, especially after experiencing sexual abuse once again — this time at age 15 — while working as a cashier at a local business in East Hampton. Every closing shift, she reported that the owner would lock the door, turn off the lights, walk behind the counter to where she was standing and compliment her before giving her a hug.
As the summer ticked on, and she grew increasingly uncomfortable, Martinez strategized ways to leave precisely when the store closed, she said. But one day, she got stuck there past 6 p.m., and the ritual started.
“When he hugged me, that’s when I felt that he had an erection,” she said. “I backed away, I didn’t say anything and I didn’t even say bye. I just ran out the door.”
After that incident, Martinez made a promise to herself to never work there again past that season, she said, and she kept it. But she never filed a report with the police — navigating similar feelings of shame and secrecy on her own, behind closed doors.
“As I grew older, I started learning about the culture of silence within our own community,” she said. “I was never going to say anything about what had happened to me when I was 7, so I wasn’t going to say anything about this, either.”
That changed when she went to college, she said. In a psychology course, she learned that childhood trauma in any form can hold a survivor back mentally and emotionally, and she began reflecting on her own journey — as well as those of her friends who had experienced sexual abuse or violence.
Statistically, survivors of sexual assault are about four times more likely than nonvictims to develop symptoms of drug abuse and experience PTSD as adults, and about three times more likely to experience a major depressive episode as adults, according to RAINN.
“That’s when I started saying, ‘No, that wasn’t okay,’ and, ‘No, that was never supposed to happen,’” Martinez said. “That’s when I decided to speak up about it. I’m not going to normalize this because if I stay silent about it, who’s to say this won’t continue to happen? The only way this will continue to happen is if I stay quiet.”
When, in 2020, East Hampton Village Police began an investigation of the same shop owner for a similar incident, Martinez decided to report the abuse she said occurred six years prior.
Not long after, she told her parents about the sexual abuse she experienced at age 7.
“Unfortunately, that’s something that hasn’t really gone well,” Martinez said. “That culture norm in the Latino community, you have to really stick to each other and we have to really stick together. We don’t report on our family members and we forgive, stuff like that.
“I didn’t agree, and so it’s something that I’m still working through with them, and it’s been put on the back burner,” she continued. “But I still know that it’s not okay and I know that there are a lot of young women who are experiencing this. And a lot of young women don’t make it through.”
For years, the sexual abuse that Martinez suffered shattered her self-esteem and self-worth, she said. Her experience in reporting the East Hampton shop incidents left her feeling invalidated, she said — even with Perez by her side — as the police officer referred to her alleged assaulter by his nickname.
Ultimately, her complaint was a dead end, she said, due to the statute of limitations.
“I just felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously,” she said. “I speak fluent English, I was born and raised here in the United States, so for me, it was very easy to go and file a complaint with the police. I felt very confident in that fact. But for women who have recently immigrated to the United States or were born in the country but are still learning the ins and outs of our system, that is another reason why they may not report, and also the language barrier.”
OLA is currently analyzing the policies of the 10 East End police departments and the New York State Police related to the handling of sexual assault and child abuse, Perez said, noting that the individual approaches of each agency vary greatly.
“Some were very strong, some were okay, but what we see across the board is there should be a consistency on the East End,” Perez said. “Us, as advocates, need to be able to advocate in a way that’s effective, so we can know what this process looks like, what you should be expecting, what you should be prepared for. But it’s very hard to do that when you’ve got 10 different variations of how something might be approached.”
By soliciting answers to the survey, OLA plans to use the responses to help shape law enforcement practices and data collection, and share the results with schools, families and the community at large in order to better support survivors of sexual assault.
“We know how much care goes into law enforcement looking at these heinous crimes,” Perez said, “but we want to make sure that there’s enough support around those systems that we can have that dialogue — because we’re all missing something, as a region.”
Apart from the external impacts of the results, Perez said she hopes that, internally, the survey offers healing to its participants, which Martinez said she experienced as she completed it — while also advocating for education and therapy.
“We have to keep our children safe,” she said. “My hope is that there is going to be conversations held, that kids who are victims of sexual abuse will speak up and will start saying, ‘Yes, this happened to me.’ There won’t be this culture of silence anymore.”
At age 24, Martinez has learned how to speak up herself, and separate her trauma from the woman she is today.
At age 24, she is strong, emboldened and loud.
At age 24, she is a survivor — and she is so much more than that.
“It had nothing to say about who I am — and that was very empowering,” she said of her sexual abuse. “I could reinvent myself. I can start a new page. This had nothing to do with me. I’m not a bad person. I was the one that was subjected to this.
“Now, I know I’m deserving of the life that I’ve always wanted. And so I’m gonna go get it.”