By Emily Witt
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, giving us the opportunity to come together as a community for important conversations around how we can best support survivors, amplify their voices, and begin to shift the cultural response to sexual assault.
While awareness months give us a designated space to explore topics like sexual assault, unraveling the various systems and long-held beliefs that create burdens for survivors seeking justice, resources, and support is a pursuit that advocates, advocacy organizations, and other dedicated community members are working toward 365 days a year.
"We live in a culture that defines masculinity as power over others, and overwhelmingly, sexual assault is a crime against women."
To take real action, we must first understand the factors that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault in our culture.
“We live in a culture that defines masculinity as power over others, and overwhelmingly, sexual assault is a crime against women,” remarks Emily LeBlanc, CASA of Travis County’s Chief Program Officer.
While monthly prevention and awareness campaigns can’t bear the sole burden of stopping sexual assault, they can be a helpful first step in educating our community.
"The more exposure the issue gets, the more victims are heard and believed, and people realize how prevalent sexual assault is, the more they will care enough to try and do something to stop it."
“Awareness months are helpful to prevention in that step one to preventing sexual assault is getting to a world where victims are believed when they say that they’ve been sexually assaulted and that they’re supported. Right now, our culture tends to disbelieve and blame victims instead. Awareness is critical, and prevention months should focus on stopping rape in the first place, as well as amplify empowering messages of what healthy relationships and boundaries look like, rather than supporting the myth that victims can prevent their own assault. We’re not going to stop sexual assault overnight, but the more exposure the issue gets, the more victims are heard and believed, and people realize how prevalent sexual assault is, the more they will care enough to try and do something to stop it. I think that's the spirit of an awareness month: We want the community to feel enraged enough that they feel empowered to want to change our culture.”
As advocates for children who have been abused or neglected and are therefore more vulnerable to future abuse and sexual assault, our focus on education and action surrounding this issue is integral to CASA’s mission to keep children safe. We’re constantly engaged with our community year-round about how to create environments that are free of abuse and assault, and within CASA, we’ve taken concrete steps to ensure that we're creating the same atmosphere for children at our organization.
"Children who have experienced abuse or neglect are particularly vulnerable, so we work with Praesidium to do everything in our power to ensure that kids are safe with CASA and with other adults in their lives."
“Because children who have experienced abuse or neglect are particularly vulnerable, we work with Praesidium to do everything in our power to ensure that kids are safe with CASA and with other adults in their lives. We want to respond to tremors, not earthquakes, so we encourage staff, volunteers, and the children we serve to pay attention to anything that doesn’t seem right. We also invest a lot in educating our staff and volunteers on red flags and prevention. However, education about resources for when assault does occur is also important. Some of the resources available to victims are time-sensitive, so it’s important that we’re able to offer those resources quickly and that children have a trusted adult with whom they can discuss their options. My suggestions for forensic exams for minors in the Travis County area would be Dell Children’s Hospital for children and SAFE for adolescents,” says LeBlanc.
LeBlanc’s dedication to advocating for survivors extends beyond her role as Chief Program Officer at CASA Travis County.
LeBlanc’s dedication to advocating for survivors extends beyond her role as Chief Program Officer at CASA Travis County. Sexual assault advocacy is one of her areas of expertise, and she currently serves on the Leadership Team at The Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT). Formerly, LeBlanc served as the Senior Director of Community Advocacy at SAFE, where Emily and Jenny Black, SAFE’s Director of Forensic Nursing, worked together to create SAFE’s Eloise House. Jenny is also a member of SARRT and its Leadership Team.
As the Director of Forensic Nursing at SAFE, Black spends her days doing advocacy work and education within the community, and the day of our interview, she’d just returned from testifying during the current legislative session. She also, of course, focuses much of her energy and time on creating an inclusive and compassionate space where survivors can receive care.
"SAFE is uncommon in that we are co-housed with advocates, meaning that both professions work collaboratively to care for survivors."
“So much of my job is often helping survivors who reach out to us reduce or remove barriers to access to resources and services. SAFE is uncommon in that we are co-housed with advocates, meaning that both professions work collaboratively to care for survivors. We’re able to work together to ensure that each person we serve is able to receive the kind of support they need," says Black.
Jenny was even kind enough to walk me through the experience of receiving a forensic exam at SAFE and what supports I might be offered afterward, which we’d like to share below for anyone that may need this resource:
- The first thing we do at SAFE when a client comes to us for an exam is get settled in. We introduce ourselves, and advocates take a second and explain the limits of confidentiality. We want clients to understand what we’re legally bound to.
- We always ask at the beginning about foremost concerns on people’s minds: “What’s important to you? What’s a concern for you?” Sometimes, people haven’t slept in 4 days, need to let their dogs out, or may have any number of immediate needs. We want to address those needs first.
- We make our clients as comfortable as possible. We’ll typically ask, “do you want a blanket, coffee, what would help you feel more centered and grounded right now?”
- We’ll begin to talk about the services we offer and answer any questions that arise, helping us to navigate a conversation about what steps clients might want to take next.
- We offer medical care, starting with a client’s first concern. This could be care for injuries, pregnancy prevention, and really anything that a client might be worried about. All care is customized to that person’s specific needs, wants, and concerns.
- We talk about reporting to law enforcement, if that’s something that a client wants to do. For minors, this would be a requirement, because we are Mandatory Reporters at SAFE. However, the client does not have to speak to authorities if they do not want to. We will call for them if they’d like. Our advocates will talk with clients about what the reporting process looks like, what it means, and what happens next. And for people that might want to report, we call an officer who comes out and takes some information.
- For people that want to, we will do an evidence collection exam. This step typically takes the longest during the entire process, and includes medical history, an in-depth conversation about the event so that we know what to look for, and a head-to-toe exam. We will also discuss safety planning during this step, which involves exploring the client’s relationship with the assailant. If the client is a minor and their parents or foster placements have brought them in, for example, we’ll be sure to have a private conversation with the client so that they can comfortably let us know what their needs and wants are. The last thing we’ll do, if the client has given informed consent, is an anogenital exam to assess for injuries and collect any DNA that might be present. This is the most physically invasive component of the process but only takes about five minutes. We have a robust informed consent process, and clients can say no to anything. We have no agenda, and there’s no pressure.
“As the examination process winds down, we make sure clients have appointments or referrals for any ongoing services they might want or need. We put the burden on ourselves to make those connections instead of leaving it to clients to do. We take care of as much of that process as we can,” states Black.
"Most importantly, we make sure people have support."
“Most importantly, we make sure people have support. We ask ‘what do you have and what do you need?’ Sometimes, people may not want any of the services and resources we have to offer. If now is not the right time, maybe there’s another time that’s better, and if there’s not, that’s fine, too.”
"The fact that your brain told you what to do to survive is something to be celebrated, not something to beat yourself up about."
For survivors, Black had this to offer:
“There’s not a person that I’ve cared for in this role who doesn’t blame themselves in some way or another. That’s insidious, and that’s part of what makes recovery difficult. We do a lot of neuroeducation with the survivors we serve, and we explain that the reason a survivor might freeze in a situation is because the survival part of your brain takes over when your physical safety is threatened. The fact that your brain told you what to do to survive is something to be celebrated, not something to beat yourself up about. It would be great if community members had basic knowledge of trauma and of what happens on a neurobiological level in a life-threatening situation.”
"Take the assault seriously. Don’t blame victims."
And for those of us who know someone that’s been assaulted, Black says, “Take the assault seriously. Don’t blame victims. Friends and family members have their own responses, but don’t ask a survivor to handle your response. Take responsibility for your own care so that you get what you need to be a source of support for survivors.”
In closing, Black echoes LeBlanc and other advocates in voicing the simple first step that community members can take to bolster sexual assault awareness every single day, enact real change in our society, and support survivors.
If you’d like to learn more about sexual assault awareness and prevention, here are some resources:
Expect Respect Program at SAFE
The Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT)
Texas Association Against Sexual Assault
End Violence Against Women International
2021 Advocacy Sexual Assault Awareness Month