Empowerment Through Justice: Kaethe Morris Hoffer

A shocking statistic: Most perpetrators of sexual assault are never arrested, let alone charged.

According to Human Rights Watch, the arrest rate for rape in Illinois is 11 percent. The reasons why this statistic is so dismally low are complicated, says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). She is working to help rape victims be heard and not victimized a second time by police and legal systems.

“In Illinois, it continues to be the case that only a minority of survivors ever report to the police,” she says. Part of the reason is the stereotype that most of us have about rape. We fear dark alleys, parking lots and stairwells; we fear being attacked by a stranger with extreme violence. But according to crime statistics, the reality is that most women who are raped know their attacker. As Morris Hoffer notes, “He’s not a stranger, maybe he’s a friend of a friend. And overwhelmingly, the level of force he uses is sufficient to overcome her will, but not to injure her.”

There are no witnesses, and after the crime, if they go to the police, they are often met with disbelief. Which is why Morris Hoffer and CAASE got a grant in 2010 from the Department of Justice to provide legal services to the victims of sexual violence in Chicago. In 2011, they helped 121 survivors, and in 2012, served even more, but the need is so great, Morris Hoffer is launching a pro bono attorney project with CAASE.

“Most people don’t lie about being raped, and when they do tell the truth, they’re surprised when the system doesn’t respond,” Morris Hoffer says. “Being subjected to a sexual assault is horribly traumatic, but it’s equally traumatic to learn that the community doesn’t believe that it happened to you.”

When the criminal courts fail, a law that Morris Hoffer worked on allows victims to seek a civil no-contact order and to pursue the perpetrator in civil court. It’s not perfect, but it does give victims a way to take charge of what’s happened and to see some measure of justice.

Morris Hoffer found her calling early on. In high school, she was a peer counselor for Planned Parenthood. “People started talking to me about sexual assault, and it wasn’t even identified that way. A 15-year-old girl who has been subjected to something she didn’t want to do by her boyfriend doesn’t call it rape.”

Along with helping victims of sexual assault, Morris Hoffer also works to end sex trafficking and pros- titution in Illinois. CAASE started the campaign, “End Demand Illinois,” to refocus law enforcement’s attention on pimps, johns and traffickers, while proposing a network of social services for survivors of the sex trade.

“In Chicago, 16,000-24,000 girls and women are involved in prostitution on any given day,” says Morris Hoffer. “And most women enter the sex trade as young teenagers. In one Chicago study, the average age of entry was 16.” The goal is to increase the level of anxiety that men have about purchasing sex. If police are actively arresting, charging and prosecuting johns, men are less likely to purchase services on the street, in strip clubs, massage parlors or the Internet.

As she works to empower and protect women, Morris Hoffer says that the trick is to be outraged without allowing anger to be a corrosive force in your own life. “On most days, it doesn’t feel like we’re making progress. But then we hold a perpetrator accountable in civil court, or we connect a survivor with a pro bono attorney, and that helps motivate me.”