Sexual assault is a topic that recently has been heard or seen everywhere – on the morning radio, in newspapers and magazines, at the movies, at the dinner table and more. It’s a local problem as much as a national problem. No matter where it happens, behind each discussion are people whose lives are changed forever.
In La Plata County, Sexual Assault Services Organization is the foremost organization working to provide vital prevention training and education for schoolchildren, as well as working with local stakeholders to respond better across the community. SASO has been providing services and support to victims of sexual assault for 40 years.
It is important for our community to understand the scope of work we provide locally by sharing a glimpse into our world.
One significant piece of our work is individual advocacy. Each year, SASO serves more than 100 people who self-identify as victims of sexual violence, and we work with many more people who seek support to help those they love and to find resources to heal pain and trauma. Part of our individual advocacy is providing a confidential service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Often, our first contact begins when we receive a call on our 24-hour SASO crisis hotline. Calls come from people seeking information about sexual assault or from victims who need help taking the next step. This first point of contact engages our advocates, all of whom complete a mandatory 30 hours of training to be able to answer questions and offer choices, including medical care and/or reporting to law enforcement. Our focus is on honoring what the caller wants and needs, which is crucial for a person who has had their power taken away from them.
Frequently, the caller will want to first go to the hospital to receive medical care. They may then choose to report the incident to law enforcement. At Mercy Regional Medical Center, there is a team of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners who conduct forensic medical examinations. The nurses work with each victim to determine their reporting preference, then provide medical care, and conduct a methodical process of collecting verbal and physical evidence. This can be an overwhelming and exhausting experience for a victim who has just been assaulted. SASO is thankful for this team of well-trained, caring and compassionate nurses.
If the victim chooses to report to law enforcement, police conduct an interview. Our local law enforcement is skilled at knowing how traumatic these interviews can be, so they use specific skills to minimize repetition and harm to the victim. A particular method they use is to focus on sensory memory rather than chronology because post-trauma our brain cells may not recall details quickly or in order. If necessary, law enforcement will take the victim’s clothing as evidence. SASO provides a self-care emergency bag for the victim with new sweat pants and top, underwear, socks, journal and other compassionate goods they can take home.
A SASO advocate is present throughout this process – one that can take as long as nine hours – and waits for the victim to be cleared by medical providers and for law enforcement staff to complete its work. We then ensure the victim has a safe place to go.
The next steps can take days. SASO staff members follow up with victims by phone to ensure they have the services and resources they need. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk about the assault and don’t want any follow-up. They want it to go away.
If a case is being prosecuted, and if the victim wishes, SASO accompanies the victim throughout the long and complex judicial process. SASO provides follow-up support calls, referrals to therapists and support groups, venting sessions, answers to questions, emotional support and, hopefully, healing. As a case moves through the legal system, advocates also observe the court, attorneys, jury and the judge because it is the best measurement for SASO to gauge how our community responds and treats sexual assault issues.
Each case is different. The legal process can range from six months to two years. In total, a case might involve 15 minutes in one call to more than 400 hours of SASO staff and advocate time.
Each case also needs fresh eyes, compassion, kindness, patience and caring. Our work is to show up to meet each victim where they stand, to listen, to believe, to give hope and to help them find their path to heal.
According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one in four women and one in 17 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. SASO is active in bringing prevention education programs to schools in La Plata County so one day, there will be no new victims.
Right now, we strive to build survivors from those who have been victimized by sexual violence. We all can do this if we start by listening and letting them know we believe them.
Maura Demko is executive director of Sexual Assault Services Organization. Reach her at email@example.com.