Entrepreneur creates digital platform to help sex assault victims

Ryan Soscia, 23, is a fellow at the Halcyon Incubator in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Petula Dvorak

It was a typical July grad night party – firepit, beers and friends who had been together since kindergarten. Then something remarkable happened.

One of the jocks, the guy going on to play Division I football in college that fall, made a confession. That guy from the gym who had been working out with the team, who was at all the team events, who made friends with all the players and their families – that guy molested him.

And one by one, other athletes at the party that night said “Me, too.”

Ryan Soscia, now 23, was there that night in 2012, visiting childhood friends in his hometown of Groton, Connecticut.

He had moved to Washington, D.C., a few years earlier and had no idea – when he came back to visit that summer – about the man who had infiltrated the lives of his friends. And there they were, playing video games and catching up on a summer night when the football player told his story. “This guy keeps texting me – I don’t know what to do,” the kid said.

Soscia had just finished an internship at a law firm in D.C., working with sexual assault victims. Red flags went up. “What guy?” he asked, remembering a court case in which the victim was stalked by text.

Soscia didn’t let up with the questions until his friend put the video game controller down and spilled his guts.

“He was everywhere – the guy had embedded himself in their lives,” Soscia said. “I just get chills thinking of that night and how everyone came together.”

It was “Friday Night Lights” meets USA Gymnastics.

Six years later, Soscia is back in the District to do something about it. But let’s finish with the story of those boys first.

He told his friend to report the guy because he may target other boys. About 10 young men said they had similar experiences. Three of them, between 16 and 18 years old, went to their parents, and they all went to the police.

The next day, police called Timothy Devine, a volunteer firefighter and owner of the CrossFit Groton gym. They told him about the allegations and set up an interview. Devine, 30, withdrew cash from his bank account, wrote a suicide note and left his home. After a six-hour standoff on the University of Connecticut campus, Devine killed himself with his gun, authorities said.

The abuse haunted Soscia for years.

He graduated from high school and went to college at the University of California at San Diego, where he studied neuroscience, physiology and computer science. And he kept thinking of how hard it was for those boys to come forward.

“All those years, those athletic, aggressive guys, we all knew each other since kindergarten,” he said. “And no one ever said anything.”

He understood. When he was in elementary school, he says he was molested by his best friend’s big brother. When Soscia tried to tell a friend, all he got was, “No, he wouldn’t do something like that.”

We saw it with the Catholic Church, USA Gymnastics, Penn State and thousands of other cases. Parents, priests, coaches who couldn’t believe such horrific allegations so they managed to dismiss them.

But that night at the fire pit, the boys were heard. And for years, Soscia kept thinking: How could he make certain other victims were heard?

His attempt at a solution was born in 2014. It’s a digital platform that victims can access through a website to report their assaults. Encrypted algorithms match cases – same name of a perpetrator, same address, same building, whatever.

It’s called JDoe. That’s for John Doe or Jane Doe, because everything can be done anonymously. Users cannot see other reports or any names, so it’s not like the neighborhood listserv or a bathroom wall. Even engineers at JDoe won’t be able to learn their names thanks to cutting-edge encryption.

But if they choose, a user can be alerted when there is a match. And then, together, those two or more victims have the option of taking their case to a law firm.

The folks who see the algorithms, the matches, will be lawyers who buy access to the anonymous reports after being thoroughly vetted. That system alone, Soscia believes, will weed out false reports, like someone trying to get even with an ex. Lawyers won’t spend time on a case they can’t win in court, he said. If lawyers see a case that looks good, they can reach out to the Jane or John Doe, and it’s up to the victim whether to respond.

What Soscia is doing follows a growing trend in sexual assault cases that bypass the criminal justice system and head straight to civil law.

The criminal justice system has failed many survivors, according to an analysis of 2010-2012 crime data from the FBI done by RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“Out of every 1,000 instances of rape, only 13 cases get referred to a prosecutor, and only 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction,” according to the report.

Soscia has some serious folks backing him. He cold-emailed billionaire Mark Cuban, who verified that he’s been talking to Soscia about strategies to keep the project ironclad.

“Yes,” Cuban said in an email. “I’ve tried to be supportive of what they are trying to accomplish.”

Soscia left work and school in San Diego to pursue this. Last week, he arrived at the Halcyon Incubator in Georgetown as one of 11 fellows.

He’s living in the Halcyon House, a gorgeous mix of formal ballroom and “Real World”-style house, where fellows are coached by attorneys, drilled on their one-minute pitches and schooled in the cruel world of start-ups to make their ideas reality. Only 3 percent of applicants are accepted – it’s “Shark Tank” (speaking of Cuban) for social innovators. He heads out next week to woo investors.

“There’s a lot of stigma with sexual assault. People think they’re alone,” he said. “But statistically, they’re not. I want them to know that.”

And he plans on going back to Groton to finally confront the man he said assaulted him so many years ago.



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