James Meadours was born intellectually disabled. He has fought to overcome the resulting challenges all his life.
He also has coped with a handful of incidents that left lasting emotional impacts. When he was between ninth and 10th grades and living in Houston, he was sexually assaulted by classmates on multiple occasions.
“I was too ashamed to tell anyone, because I thought nobody would believe me,” Meadours recalled. “I was afraid my mom or dad wouldn’t believe me.”
Years later, living in Oklahoma, Meadours was assaulted by a man he had met while doing advocacy work for the intellectually disabled. He did not report the incident, but after talking with someone from the Tulsa-based rape crisis center, he expanded his advocacy work to help sexual assault survivors.
But for Meadours, that was not the end of the assaults. Living in Baton Rouge, La., in the mid-2000s, he befriended a man at church. The man was hard of hearing and offered to teach Meadours sign language. One day, the man kissed and fondled Meadours and tried to force him into oral sex.
“I used sign language to tell him to stop,” Meadours said. “I shook my head, ‘No.’”
These events scarred Meadours, and he struggled with the idea of feeling more vulnerable to people.
“I thought I lost the power to stand up for myself,” he said. “I didn’t have confidence in myself.”
But following the last assault, Meadours took steps he had not taken previously. He formally reported the incident to police and was given a physical exam. The perpetrator from the 2005 assault was prosecuted, thanks to testimony from Meadours and his advocates.
In the following years, the Louisiana native moved around, winding up in San Antonio, where he’s lived for several years. He has taken time to recover emotionally and mentally from the last assault and to learn from his experiences.
With help from counselors and crisis centers, most recently the Rape Crisis Center of San Antonio, Meadours developed tools for coping and emerged as a vocal advocate for fellow sexual assault survivors.
“They helped me,” Meadours said of the rape crisis center. “Now I can help people who’ve been sexually assaulted.”
Representatives and supporters of the center, including local elected leaders and law enforcement officials, say believing a victim is the first major step toward legal action and that victim’s recovery.
At a press conference on April 17 at City Hall, Mayor Ivy Taylor proclaimed April as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
Every April, government agencies, community-based organizations, rape crisis centers, universities, and individuals participate in this campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault crimes and educate the community on how to prevent it.
San Antonio’s rape crisis center provides intervention, counseling, and advocacy services to children and adult victims of all forms of sexual violence. The center also serves people who choose not to report assaults or whose assault happened years ago.
The center and its partners also are part of a nationwide “Start by Believing” campaign, “which allows each individual in San Antonio to commit to support victims of sexual assault,” the mayor said.
“We can do that by believing them, believing their story of assault, and believing that they can and will overcome,” Taylor added.
Miriam Elizondo, the center’s executive director, said her organization responds to two to three new assaults daily, and that 50% of those incidents are committed against minors. More than 17,000 individuals received services from the center in 2016.
“We shouldn’t have to be serving so many individuals,” Elizondo said. “The challenge is to prevent it, as the center has clinicians, who are just as much educators, who try to help improve the number of healthy relationships.”
Taylor highlighted some 2015 data on the issue from the University of Texas at Austin.
“In Texas, two in five women and one in five men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime,” Taylor said. “But sexual assault continues to be one of the most underreported crimes against a person. In Texas, only 9.2% of victims report the assault.”
Meadours agreed with the notion that sexual assault does not discriminate on the basis of gender.
“It’s not a women’s issue or a men’s issue, it’s a people issue,” he said. “It’s also a disabilities issue.”
Local law enforcement leaders acknowledge the difficulty for some victims in reporting a sexual assault, but say that once their agencies are involved, they are aggressive in efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.
“In working with the [Bexar County District Attorney’s] office, I can help you prosecute these cases,” Police Chief William McManus said. The San Antonio Police Department has a crisis response team that provides victims advocacy services.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar sits on the crisis center board of directors.
He said family, friends, law enforcement, and advocates must try to hear out the victim, because not doing so violates the trust the victim may have in the individuals and organizations that could help them.
“I want to do my part to make sure victims and their families are taken care of in the process,” he said. “If you’re a witness to an outcry by a victim, start by believing them. It’s a very important statement.”
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood also sits on the center’s board. He said supporting and advocating for victims, coupled with legal action against perpetrators, can help victims recover.
“We have to survive. We’ve all survived tragedy in our lives,” he said. “The goal is to overcome this tragedy so that it doesn’t become the new normal.”
Meadours has nothing but praise for the staffers and volunteers he has met at the Rape Crisis Center of San Antonio and similar organizations over the years.
The self-advocacy and coping skills have helped him in trying times. He experienced difficulties during air travel in past years because pat-downs performed by airport security officers would trigger flashbacks of the assaults.
“I can pick up the phone [for the crisis center] hotline and call anytime,” he said. “That kind of thing gives me peace of mind.”
Now Meadours speaks in public or in videos about sexual assault or intellectual disabilities, sometimes addressing both. He is a board secretary for Texas Advocates.
He has also trained volunteers and staff at the local rape crisis center and similar organizations on how to support sexual assault victims.
“I thank [volunteers and staff] for giving me a chance to represent them,” he said.