Advocates for Sexual Assault Victims Offer Help in Alexandria
Local agencies are committed to help victims deal with trauma.
Volunteers at the Alexandria Sexual Assault Center go few nights without helping a victim in need.
The center’s sexual assault hotline receives about 200 to 300 calls each year. Then there are another 100 police reports the center assists with annually, including some that ultimately go to court. Other victims may need to meet with a counselor or join a support group.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Patch attended a panel discussion at Alexandria Police headquarters of members of Alexandria’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a multidisciplinary group that assists victims from the first phone call through the court process.
In the United States, according to SART statistics, nearly one in five women and one out of every 71 men have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Assault occurs not only by force, but also when the victim is not in control due to drugs or alcohol, is forced to go further sexually than he or she wants or is too young to consent to sexual activity.
“It’s not just a rape,” said Eliana Burnham with the assault center. “It’s any unwanted sexual activity forced on one person by another person.”
Alexandria is experiencing historic lows in crimes, but there were 21 rapes in the city in 2011, up from 20 in 2010, according to police data.
The hotline is only one tool in the fight against and response to sexual assault, but for many victims, the call is the first cry for help.
“I think the biggest thing they get out of it is being able to confidentially talk to someone who believes them, who tells them right up front, ‘We believe what you’re telling us,’” said Claire Dunn with the center. “We help them work through the trauma. Very often it could be something that happened in the past and they’re having memories of it, or they just need to get it out.
“I think just really believing them, giving them the space and time to talk it through and work it out, in their own time, is one of the biggest thing a hotline can do.”
The SART mantra is that the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of the victim will be given strong consideration throughout the sexual assault investigation and prosecution. Members from different agencies collaborate on cases, provide support to victims, work with police and prosecutors to hold offenders accountable and facilitate communication between prosecutors and victims.
Often, victims’ needs are more immediate, Burnham said.
“Most people that have gone through a trauma like sexual assault are really having trouble functioning,” she said. “Pretty much all areas of their lives are affected. Sometimes they can’t work. Sometimes they can’t eat. They’re hyper-vigilant, they’re anxious, they’re having flashbacks. One of the main things that we do is we try to stabilize them. We try to teach them coping skills.”
Most sexual assaults are committed by a person the victim knows, Dunn said.
“I think the public still has the perception that sexual assault still is that mentally disturbed stranger, individual jumping out of a bush, and that’s a concept that’s been hard for the public to shake and that’s not the case. And it never has been.”
Many victims keep assaults secret due to fear of reprisal from the offender, concern that no one will take them seriously, shame and stigma, the belief that it will go away if they forget about it or because they don’t remember what happened. Cultural influences also affect a victim’s willingness to report the crime, said Alexandria police detective Amy Santiago.
“For example, in the Asian community, it can be hard because they’re so afraid of bringing shame to their own community they don’t want to report it,” Santiago said.
Burnham said often, men will not report sexual crimes due to the stigma that insinuates men can’t be rape victims. People of all walks of life in Alexandria seek help for sexual assault, said Judy Holl with the Victim Witness Assistance Program.
“It’s just across the board,” Holl said. “I think that’s one of the misconceptions, that it happens to other groups, other demographics, but it’s out there. All ages, all demographics.”
The SART team began meeting monthly in 2000 to educate themselves, keep up on new developments in the field and disseminate best practices. In an informal basis, they’ve worked together since the 1980s in a team approach.
Sexual assault victims in Alexandria can call the 24-hour help line at 703-683-7273.