By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — A person is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds in the United States, and every nine minutes the victim is a child, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization.
Those incidents of sexual violence do not stop while the nation is under stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, and experts said they fear cases may be getting even worse due to stress and isolation caused by the pandemic.
“I suspect once we have data from this period it will show that certain types of sexual assaults decline, like assaults that typically start from meeting at a social setting like a bar or a party,” Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “At the same time, I think that sexual assaults of children and intimate partners will be way up.”
“We are definitely going to be bringing on extra staff and having them work extra shifts as states lift [stay-at-home] restrictions,” he said.
RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE), and while the number of calls to the hotline has remained steady, the types of callers and the types of calls have changed during the pandemic, Berkowitz said.
More than 30% of calls to the hotline over the past month have included discussions of COVID-19, with callers saying the pandemic was “exacerbating the difficulty” of what they’re facing. In March, for the first time in the hotline’s history, half of all calls to the hotline were made by minors, according to Berkowitz.
“Kids tend to use the online hotline more than the phone, and we’re seeing that even more right now,” he said. “A lot of them are telling us that their parent thinks that they’re doing schoolwork on their computer so they have a little bit of privacy to reach out without anyone knowing.”
Kids epitomize the problem faced by many sexual assault survivors during the pandemic — isolated at home, they’re often with their perpetrator and without access to the teachers, coworkers and guidance counselors in whom they could confide, or who under normal circumstances would see them daily and be able to spot signs of sexual assault. Children also are unable in many cases to visit sexual assault resource centers in person.
RAINN has also seen anecdotal evidence that sexual assault survivors are reluctant to go to hospitals for help, and that some hospitals are so overloaded with coronavirus patients that it’s difficult for them to do timely rape kit exams, according to Berkowitz.
When stay-at-home orders are lifted in states, in addition to an increase in disclosures, experts said they’re also bracing for survivors who will need even more help than usual, according to Laura Palumbo, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“The volume and this situation is going to be compounding these people’s experience,” she told GMA. “They’ve had no way to seek immediate support or medical resources or other forms of assistance and because of that may be facing additional medical needs or mental health impacts.”
This crisis for sexual assault survivors and the organizations and individuals that support them is happening as the U.S. marks April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
“Even before COVID-19 happened, our theme for Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month this year was about the importance of friends and family in survivors’ lives,” said Berkowitz. “I think that takes on special meaning in a time like this because friends and family are often the only ones a survivor has any contact with right now.”
How organizations are stepping up to help survivors
While national organizations like RAINN and NSVRC have scrambled to increase support they offer online and move their staffs to remote locations where their work can remain confidential, the more than 1,500 rape crisis centers across the country have faced a crisis of their own in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are on the second front line in response to this coronavirus,” said Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center in Seattle. “We provide critical mental health first-aid, and we are a real safety net for thousands of victims and their families throughout our region, especially at a time when things are so uncertain and there is such degree of stress and trauma around.”
Stone said resource centers like the one she leads already came into 2020 overextended financially and logistically because of the increase in demand for their services since the start of the Me Too movement. With the pandemic, Stone and her staff are now facing increasingly complicated requests from survivors that they have to respond to financial and technological constraints, staff shortages and a lack of volunteers.
“We are getting everything from, ‘How do I navigate the legal system now with the courts basically shut down’ to ‘How do I get a protection order in place when the process for setting that up online is not very smooth’ and ‘How do I do social distancing and still at the same time get the help and support that I need?'” said Stone. “It’s a much more complicated environment, and people are under a whole other degree of stress.”
“It’s also hard work and a strain on staff,” she said. “When you’re dealing with people who are in crisis and who are struggling with anxiety and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s hard work. Doing that in a vacuum, doing that at home where you can’t easily collaborate with coworkers, puts an additional strain on people.”
Rape crisis centers are places people go not just in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, but in the weeks, months and even years after for help, experts said. They offer everything from food and shelter to prepaid cellphones, employment help and mental health support.
Crisis centers now are finding it difficult to find resources for the people they help — food banks across are stretched to their limits, for example — and finding it difficult to fundraise, which typically sees a spike during National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
“There is always so much need for support for people who have experienced the trauma of sexual violence and rape crisis centers provide that in so many ways,” said Ebony Tucker, the executive director of RALIANCE, a nonprofit focused on ending sexual violence. “Since COVID-19, our work has been on trying to secure better funding for rape crisis centers to still operate in this new environment and to make sure survivors are still having their needs met.”
RALIANCE is one of the organizations leading the charge in pushing Congress to provide $100 million of emergency funding to the Sexual Assault Services Program (SASP) and to waive a requirement under the Victims of Crime Act that requires rape crisis centers to match funding they receive from the fund to make sure programs can meet the needs of survivors.
“The concern is that the lack of privacy is leading to not as many people reaching out and then when stay-at-home orders lift — then we’re going to be seeing a significant increase,” Tucker added. “A lot of centers are already very bare-bones in what they have as resources.”
Despite the challenges, advocates want sexual assault survivors to know that help exists, even during a pandemic.
“Every sexual assault organization in the country is still operating. We’re here, and we’re available,” said Stone, whose organization in Washington state supports around 5,000 people per year.
“Oftentimes, victims think in a time like this that what happened to them is not important as this national emergency,” she said. “I want to say, this doesn’t have to be the case, that what happened to you or a family member is as important now as it was whenever it happened, and it’s never too late to reach out for help.”
Resource for sexual assault victims and advocates
RAINN offers a 24/7 confidential hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) and 24/7 help online at RAINN.org.
RALIANCE is offering support online specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
NSVRC offers 24/7 support for sexual assault survivors and advocates on its website. It is featuring a special section on the coronavirus pandemic, including self-care tips for survivors during a tragedy.
RAINN has tips for helping and talking with survivors of sexual assault HERE.
If you are concerned a friend or loved one is a victim of sexual assault, read more about the warning signs HERE.
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