According to statistics gathered from the U.S. Department of Justice, incidents of sexual violence have fallen nationally by more than half in the past 23 years.

The rate of sexual assault and rape has decreased from 4.3 assaults per 1,000 people in 1993 to 1.6 per 1,000 in 2015.

Across the nation, it is estimated that someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.

But just how big is the problem in Georgia and North Florida? 

Mary Martinez, executive director of The Lily Pad Center in Albany, said her organization has tracked data since 2008.

“The number has been consistent on a yearly basis,” she said. “I don’t think we can ever say 100 percent if there is an increase or decrease.”

The SunLight Project team in Georgia and North Florida took a look in the coverage area — Valdosta, Dalton, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Tifton and Moultrie, Ga., and Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla. — to see how the region stacks up to the national trends.

How is sexual assault defined? 

According to the Georgia code of statutes, sexual assault means rape, aggravated sodomy, statutory rape, aggravated child molestation, sexual assault against a person detained in a hospital or other institution, sexual assault by a practitioner of psychotherapy against a patient, incest, bestiality, sexual battery and aggravated sexual battery.

The U.S. Department of Justice defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Georgia has a much narrower definition of the crime. According to Georgia statute 16-6-1, “A person commits the offense of rape when he has carnal knowledge, carnal knowledge being defined as any penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ, of either a female forcibly and against her will or a female who is less than 10 years of age.”

Rape is not the only sexual assault crime one can commit in Georgia.

Aggravated sodomy is “when he or she commits sodomy with force and against the will of the other person or when he or she commits sodomy with a person who is less than ten years of age.”

Child molestation falls under the umbrella of sexual assault as well. It is defined as “any immoral or indecent act to or in the presence of or with any child under the age of 16 years.” In Georgia, child molestation includes sharing pictures or videos of those aforementioned immoral or indecent acts.

Georgia law states “a person commits the offense of sexual battery when he or she intentionally makes physical contact with the primary genital area, anus, groin, inner thigh or buttocks of a male or female and the breasts of a female without the consent of that person."

Sexual battery is a misdemeanor offense unless it is against a person under the age of 16 or a second or subsequent conviction, in which case it is a felony.

“A person commits the offense of aggravated sexual battery when he or she intentionally penetrates with a foreign object the sexual organ or anus of another person without the consent of that person,” according to Georgia law.

Who are the victims? 

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, there are on average 321,200 victims age 12 and older of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.

The majority, approximately 54 percent, are between the ages of 18 and 34. While women and girls are more likely to experience sexual violence — approximately one out of every six — it is estimated that one out of every 10 rape victims are male. 

LGBTQ people are at a higher risk for sexual violence.

Approximately 175,000 of the reported rape victims are white, with nearly 50,000 victims being Hispanic and approximately 25,000 reporting victims being black.

For children under the age of 12, an estimated 63,000 a year are the victims of sexual abuse.

Who are the perpetrators? 

According to RAINN, the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in eight out of 10 rape cases, the female victim knew the person who assaulted her. For adult victims, 45 percent of rapes are committed by an acquaintance, 25 percent by a spouse or significant other and 28 percent by a stranger.

Child victims are a little different. Ninety-seven percent of all juvenile victims know their attacker. Out of reported juvenile sexual abuse cases, 59 percent were committed by acquaintances and 34 percent were committed by family members.

The majority of the offenders are white males (57 percent) over the age of 30 (50 percent).

According to data gathered from around South Georgia and North Florida, both states fall in line with national trends.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime statistics only go through 2015.

During that year, there were 2,222 rapes reported with 325 arrests.

In 2015, there were 28 people age 16 and younger who were arrested for forcible rape, 57 people age 17-21, 79 age 22-29, 71 age 30-39, 51 age 40-49 and 39 age 50-plus.

Three-hundred-nineteen were male and six were female, while 124 were listed as white and 201 as non-white.

In 2015, there were 65,487 reported family violence incidents, with 441 of those being logged as sexual abuse.

How do Georgia and Florida measure up? 

A total of 134 sex offenses were reported for 2016 between the Thomas County Sheriff's Office and the Thomasville Police Department. 

Of the 134 incidents, six rapes were reported to the Thomas County Sheriff's Office and seven were reported to the Thomasville City Police. 

Thomasville Police Chief Troy Rich said each of the seven reported rapes was investigated. 

"They were all unfounded," Rich said.

"Rape cases are difficult, they really are," said Thomas County Sheriff's Office's Kevin Dennis, lead investigator for special victims, adding he believes a great number of rape incidents go unreported.

Crystal Parker, who investigates sex crimes for the Thomasville Police Department, said the bulk of sex offenses reported and investigated by the TPD include rape, statutory rape, child molestation and aggravated child molestation. 

"Those are the ones that we deal with the most," Parker said.

Parker also noted the majority of sex crimes are not committed by a stranger but instead by an acquaintance or a family member.

Treehouse Advocacy Center Executive Director Jackla Lawson said a total of 165 forensic interviews were conducted at the Treehouse. So far for 2017, 88 forensic interviews have been conducted.

The Treehouse works with children and adults who have experienced sexual assault, physical and/or sexual abuse.

"Ninety percent of our caseload is children," Lawson said, noting 85 percent of that is sexual abuse allegations.

In Suwannee County, Fla., there were 15 total forcible sex offenses reported in 2016, which accounted for a forcible sex offense rate of 33.8 per 100,000 population.

Additionally, there were six total domestic-violence-related forcible sex offenses reported for 2016.

Three people were arrested for forcible rape in 2016 and three were arrested for non-forcible sex offenses. All six were males.

There was one male juvenile arrested for non-forcible sex offenses.

In Hamilton County, Fla., there were six total forcible sex offenses reported.

Additionally there was one domestic violence related forcible sex offense reported for 2016.

One male adult was arrested for forcible rape and two adult males were arrested for non-forcible sex offenses.

One male juvenile was arrested for non-forcible sex offenses in 2016.

Another Way Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center offers counseling, support and safe shelter to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Another Way serves Lafayette, Hamilton, Suwannee, Columbia, Dixie, Levy and Gilchrist counties.

Andrea Gottry, executive director of Another Way, said from January to July, there have been 19 victims that Another Way has helped in its seven counties.

Angela Evans, Another Way’s sexual violence outreach coordinator, said 51 percent of female victims are raped by an intimate partner.

Monya Engles, Another Way program director, said the 18-33 age range has the highest number of incidents in the North Florida area. She added the 46-64 age range has had a few victims.

Engles said it is statistically proven that a woman’s chances of becoming a victim of sexual assault doubles while on a college campus.

Engles said 27 percent of women at college experience some sort of sexual assault.

Valdosta Police Investigations Cmdr. Leslie Manahan reports 13 rape cases were worked in 2016 in Valdosta, and for 2017, the department is at eight. The typical age range is 18-23.

Fourteen sexual assaults were reported to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office in 2016, including three that remain under investigation and only one that was cleared by arrest. Eleven were exceptionally cleared, meaning there was insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed. The three cases that remain under investigation are all rapes.

The victims there were all females. One was 14, one was 16 and one was 28. In all three cases, the victim knew the attacker; two of the perpetrators were family friends and one was an uncle. The attackers were between 20 and 30 years of age.

The Milledgeville Police Department investigated three rapes and one sexual assault in 2016. Three victims were white and one was black, with one being 19, one being 23, one being 50, and one being 60 at the time of the attacks.

Two rapes happened in the victims' homes and one happened at a party at the home of an acquaintance, while the sexual assault occurred just outside the victim’s home. All of the victims knew their attackers at least somewhat personally, and all were female.

The Dalton Police Department had a total of 50 sexual assault reports for 2016 with 54 victims.

There were 17 rapes reported, five forced sexual assaults, two aggravated sodomy and 25 other sexual assaults reported. Forty of the victims were listed as white. Eight were Latino, four were black and two were unspecified. Forty-seven were female, six were male and one was unspecified. Four victims were younger than the age of 12, nine were aged 12 to 16, 11 were aged 18-21, 29 were aged 22-55 and one was older than the age of 55.

Whitfield County had 32 reported rapes for 2015. The county government would not provide other data without a formal open records request and a fee.

Tift County had 12 reported rapes in 2015.

Mary Martinez, the executive director for The Lily Pad Center in Albany, said the facility serves 24 counties, including Tift County.

In 2016, the center saw more than 300 children for forensic interviews after a reported sexual assault. It conducted more than 130 sexual assault exams on children and more than 65 on adults.

In June, Martinez said there were 15 sexual assaults reported. Twelve of the reports involved child victims. Of the three adults, one was male.

Martinez said more than half of the children helped by the center were abused by a direct family member or caregiver.

“Ninety percent of those who are abused know their abusers,” Martinez said. “This is someone their family trusts or is a family member.”

In Colquitt County, there were 27 sexual assaults reported with a total of 33 victims. Sixteen of those involved children younger than the age of 16.

The ages of the children range from 3 to 15.

In the cases where gender was reported, 23 of the victims were female and four were male.

In Moultrie, there were 15 cases reported for 2016, and all of the victims were female.

Colquitt County fits in with the national trend for juvenile sexual assault cases.

A common thread running through cases where the victims are underage is that the alleged offender is a relative.  

Among sexual assaults and child molestation investigations, the suspect is a relative in 11 instances. Of those, five were identified as the father of the victim, two as uncle, and one each as grandfather and brother-in-law. Other suspects included current and ex-companions and friends of the family and/or victim.

Twenty-two victims were listed as white. All of those were female, with the exception of two males who reported sexual assaults in Colquitt County Jail. Another five were black, two of whom were males ages 3 and 6, and another six were Latino.

The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Jordan Barela, Charles Oliver, Will Woolever, Alan Mauldin, Desiree Carver, Jessie Box and writer Eve Guevara. John Stephen leads the SunLight team. To contact the team, email sunlightproject@gaflnews.com.

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