3 Things You Can Do to Support Survivors
One quiet morning last fall, I was immersed in a project at my desk when suddenly there was a woman outside the window, timidly waving to me from the other side of the glass. It’s not uncommon for a person in need of our services to come directly to our administration office — unaware of our internal protocols, which are designed to ensure their safety and confidentiality. This woman, we’ll refer to as Jane, not only needed help but had fled her home state to find it. Fortunately, someone at the Visit Bend office told her about Saving Grace. “I always heard Bend was a nice place,” Jane said when taking a seat in my office, “so I took as much money as I could from the ATM and came straight here.”
Our protocol would have me invite her into a private office to call our 24-Hour Helpline to speak with an advocate, but her demeanor indicated even the slightest interruption on my part may be misinterpreted as annoyance or skepticism, and thus scare her away without receiving the help she was seeking. I’ll never forget the specifics of her abuse at the hands of her husband, nor will I forget the look in her eyes — aching for empathy, desperate for hope. Just three words from me released the tension in Jane’s shoulders and the clench in her jaw:
“I believe you.”
The cover story in The Atlantic’s August issue is An Epidemic of Disbelief, an investigation by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, which unpacks what “new research reveals about sexual predators, and why police fail to catch them.” By the end of 2015, the federal government estimated there to be over 200,000 untested kits nationwide. For thousands of sexual assault survivors across the country, those kits are a “sealed testament to the most terrifying minutes of a women’s life,” Hagerty wrote, “each one holding evidence that had been swabbed or plucked from the most private parts of her body.”
Thanks to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), “the Justice Department has awarded $154 million to 54 jurisdictions,” which includes a grant received here in Central Oregon.
“We’re proud that in Deschutes County, we successfully cleared out our backlog of untested sexual assault kits,” said Deschutes County district attorney, John Hummel. “Every previously untested kit has been tested, and all the test results were reviewed by a deputy district attorney.”
Thanks to CODIS, the national database created in the 1990s which now contains DNA profiles collected from crime scenes across the U.S., testing these backlogged kits means “the difference between a pencil sketch and a color photograph.” Put another way, they are “biological name tags.” Throughout Oregon, DNA from the 2,913 previously untested kits has produced six convictions. Across the country, 45,000 kits have been tested, opening or reopening 5,500 investigations, with prosecutors winning 498 convictions or plea agreements.
For survivors like Jane, being believed — even by a stranger — means everything. “The last police officer I talked to in [my state] told me I’m crazy,” Jane said with tears in her eyes. The officer may have said this because Jane’s demeanor didn’t match his expectations. However, it’s common “victims often become so overwhelmed that they are barely able to speak or are hijacked into such a pain that they can’t clearly articulate what happened to them. Their testimony is often dismissed as being too chaotic, confused, and fragmented to be credible.” Or it’s possible the officer asked Jane if she fought back in some way. In other words, did Jane make it clear she did not consent to what happened to her?
“Oregon law doesn’t even define consent,” Bend-based attorney, Brigid Turner, shared in a recent interview. “We’re basically saying, ‘If a woman doesn’t fight back, or say “no”, then you can consider that “consent”. Silence by itself should not be consent. If there is domestic violence going on…if there is fear present in the room, if she is scared for her life…can a person ever really consent? I don’t think so.”
This is not just Jane’s story, but the story of thousands of survivors across our state.
So, what can you do?
Believe the friend or family member who shares their story with you. Every person responds to trauma differently and they may not be acting or communicating in a way you think you would in their situation.
Be trustworthy. Due to shame and embarrassment, many do not want anyone to know their story. Be encouraged they trust you enough to open up, as only 20% of rapes are ever reported.
Be patient. Survivors often feel unable to engage with regular aspects of their lives and routines, including socializing and sleeping.
If you’re not sure what else you can do to help, the confidentiality our 24-Hour Helpline provides is available to you as well. You can keep your identity and the survivor’s identity anonymous.
If you want to help survivors like Jane directly, consider becoming a Volunteer Advocate. Our Fall Training begins on September 13.
Written by Ryan Stillwater, Development Director, Saving Grace
Local grant funding was received in partnership with Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, whose office received a grant from the District Attorney of New York.
The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk (page 246)