Austin (KXAN) — With the start of a new year, many organizations are crunching their numbers from 2019. Among the organizations combing through 2019 data is Austin’s SAFE Alliance, which offers resources, legal assistance, counseling, and a host of other services to help people in the Austin area who have experienced violence and abuse.
But as SAFE explained to Austin Public Safety Commissioners Monday, the number of sexual assault survivors seeking services from SAFE decreased from around 660 people in 2018 to around 630 in 2019. Specifically, the decline was in the number of survivors who were seen by the SAFE Alliance nursing team at SAFE’s Eloise House sexual exam clinic as well as at local medical facilities.
Juliana Gonzales, the Senior Director of Sexual Assault Health Services at SAFE, agreed with commissioners that this decrease is worrisome given that the number of people seeking out SAFE’s support in other ways has not declined. For example, calls, texts, and emails to the SAFEline hotline (512-267-7233) have continued increasing over the same period of time.
“So [the decrease in survivors served by nurses] is a small drop, but the reason this is concerning to us is because as victim services providers, we know that violence and sexual violence in our community is not declining,” Gonzales said.
“So when we see survivors seeking services less frequently or reporting to law enforcement less frequently, we know that doesn’t mean there’s less sexual violence happening in our community,” she continued. “Our concern is that means that fewer people are seeking services or getting help after a sexual assault.”
As Austin’s population continues to grow, SAFE has been expecting to see an increase in the need for sexual assault services.
“So given the fact that we’re still seeing the same levels of survivors seeking services in other parts of our agency — and so are the other agencies that do this kind of work, — that’s how we know that there should be an equivalent number for people seeking services after a sexual assault,” Gonzales said.
She explained that there are many reasons why survivors may not want to report their sexual assault, ranging from fear of physical or financial retaliation, stigma, and anxiety associated with repeating what happened.
“A lot of times people are afraid that they won’t be believed,” Gonzales added. “A lot of times it can be very hard to talk about an assault if you are in a setting or in a community where you’re not affirmed in sharing about your sexual assault.”
While a majority of survivors SAFE works with also have cases with law enforcement agencies, it is believed nationally that a majority of survivors aren’t reporting their cases to police. For example, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found in 2014 that only one-third of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police.
Gonzales added that someone’s past criminal history, fear of not being believed in court, citizenship status, or fear of delays in the criminal justice system can be reasons why survivors don’t report to law enforcement.
SAFE says the important thing now is making sure that the public knows the sexual assault services are available and that you can get them without going to the police.
Gonzales said that survivors, ” deserve to be heard and believed and cared for after a sexual assault and to know that there is medical care that is free and available to them 24/7 after a sexual assault.”
Survivors who come to SAFE can avoid the criminal justice system altogether if they so choose or get assistance with pursuing the criminal justice process if they request it. Gonzales explained that survivors who come to SAFE won’t have their information shared with law enforcement if they don’t want it to be. The only times SAFE is required to report a case without a survivor’s consent is if SAFE feels like someone else is in danger — like a child or elderly person — because of the situation that’s going on.
She noted that survivors of sexual assault do not need to make a decision in the moments after the assault about whether they’d like to pursue the case criminally or not.
“But what you do need,” Gonzales said. “Is prevention, some medical care, pregnancy prevention and to be checked for injuries, and that’s something we can offer 24/7, for free here in Travis County.”
The conversation around sexual assault
Gonzales said she thinks its possible sexual assault survivors are more drawn to report their assault after incidents of misconduct and assault are hashed out in the public eye.
“If survivors see those high profile cases being mishandled or slowly handled, they may be disinclined to report,” she added.
In the past three years, she noted, there have been plenty of events that place the issues around sexual assault into the national spotlight.
“The ‘Me Too’ movement, and then also, things like the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearing and the presidential campaigns in 2016,” Gonzales said. “I think sexual assault survivors are likely drawing information about what their community’s reaction to their sexual assault will be, by looking at national news.”
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), a national anti-sexual violence organization that operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE), has seen the increasingly public discussion about the impacts of sexual assault impact their workload.
RAINN told KXAN that their hotline saw its busiest day ever (with a 338% increase in hotline contacts) the day after the 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (the hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford shared her allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school).
Other depictions of sexual assault in the media have had this effect as well, RAINN explained. A 2019 study found that in the 48 hours following a Grey’s Anatomy episode which called on viewers to get help if they were impacted by sexual violence, the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 43% increase in calls. Erinn Robinson, a spokesperson with RAINN, explained this national hotline has been seeing an uptick in calls generally.
“The upticks do tend to happen when stories are in the media,” Robinson said.
“‘Me Too’ was an incredibly significant cultural movement where this conversation really began, and survivors were finding the support they needed and empowered to come forward,” she added.
“But I think that we’re going to be talking about this year, we now know this is a pervasive problem across all industries,” Robinson continued. “How do we culturally move the conversation forward? We know people are coming forward, so let’s talk about how to support someone when they do come forward.”
What other organizations are seeing
SAFE says they have spoken with other providers who help sexual assault survivors who have also seen a decline in 2019 of reported cases of sexual assault and survivors seeking services.
But the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center, which provides similar services to a smaller population south of Austin, said their number of forensic examinations for sexual assault cases went up in 2019.
Melissa Rodriguez, the director of community partnerships for HCWC, explained that from 2018 to 2019, they saw a 46% increase in sexual assault exams.
“Every month we are seeing more and more coming forward and needing sexual assault exams,” she said, adding the only area of HCWC’s work which has seen less demand in 2019 was their shelter services.
Amy Jones with the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center explained that her organization has also seen a “steady increase” in hotline requests and requests for services each year. She added that the number of hospital accompaniments they provide for survivors during forensic exams “has seen a pretty significant increase.”
Even if requests for certain services increase, many survivors may never reach out for help.
Jai Nekkileru, the vice president of external outreach for the UT Austin Chapter of the “Not on My Campus” organization, explained that the majority of survivors who come forward to his organization do not pursue sexual assault services or support from the criminal justice system.
“I don’t think that’s anything [service organizations] can do to change…the way people think they will be perceived on campus or in their personal lives if they become a survivor rather than just a person,” Nekkileru said.
“I believe that survivors may be hesitant to seek support for two reasons — either unwillingness/lack of knowledge to label their personal experience as sexual assault or fear of re-traumatization,” said Rylee Trotter, who speaks both from her experience as the former president of “Not on My Campus” at UT Austin and as a survivor of sexual assault.
She explained that fear of being re-traumatized was something that stopped her from reporting the sexual assault she experienced, she also knows of survivors who wound up regretting their decision to report after being retraumatized by doing so.
“Each survivor should be given the power to heal in their own way, so I do not believe the end goal should necessarily be to have every survivor report their experience or seek counseling,” Trotter said. ” I think SAFE does a wonderful job in providing services to survivors, and I believe increased public education about what they do will improve survivors’ trust in and willingness to pursue help from the organization. ”
If you or someone you know needs to get in touch with SAFE, you can call their 24-hour SAFEline at 512.267.SAFE (7233). You can also text 737.888.SAFE (7233) or use their SAFEline chat.
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