By Adam W. Pittman on January 15, 2015
How do we prevent people in positions of authority from taking advantage of their power? Vigilance and deterrence help.
An official of the Cullman County Courts faces criminal charges of first-degree sodomy, first-degree sexual assault, and three other sexual assault charges, according to court documents. A Cullman County grand jury indicted Winfred Eugene Vance Jr. on charges that he used his position as a drug court officer to make unwanted sexual advances on participants in a court-ordered drug program.
In addition, nine plaintiffs have filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Vance and other defendants “used their positions of power and authority to extort money from indigent clients by threats of incarceration and false reporting and intimidation if fees were not paid and sexual crimes were not allowed,” the lawsuit said. The plaintiffs are seeking over $25 million in punitive damages.
Unfortunately, the situation described in Cullman County is similar to scenarios played out in workplaces, schools, camps, religious organizations, athletic groups, and many other institutions that are part of daily life for many, if not most Americans.
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One reason why a victim in such a situation would not come forward is the belief that those with authority over the perpetrator will not believe them and/or will do nothing about it. Public scrutiny and institutional safeguards help the system keep vigilant, but those in positions of authority must be open to the possibility that their friend or co-worker may be abusing those in their charge.
Everyone in the system must be vigilant.
Deterrence also helps, whether in the criminal justice system or in the civil justice system.
The criminal justice system can impose punishment on the perpetrator but only the civil justice system can impose punishment on the perpetrator and those who had the supervisory authority over the perpetrator.
We see that, as a result of civil lawsuits, the reports and incidents of serious workplace sexual harassment have decreased. Why? Because the supervisors and company executives are now at risk themselves for being held liable for the illicit acts of their employees if they ignore the situation.
A continuous pattern of illicit behavior by the drug officer should have been discovered and stopped by those who supervise him, so they share some responsibility if the allegations are true. Their liability will be addressed in the civil lawsuit. Only civil lawsuits create the deterrence for supervisors and business owners not to ignore situations like this and to put institutional safeguards in place.
It is important to remember the grave emotional and psychological implications for sexual assault victims. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to deter the illicit behavior of sexual predators.