My Experience as a Sexual Assault Advocate with the SAFE Alliance

I'm sharing here an essay I wrote for my Professional Counseling Orientation class this past semester. It details what I do as a sexual assault advocate at the SAFE Alliance. Advocacy work is an important value in the counseling profession and I am honored to get to help people who have had their autonomy, their sense of safety, and their consent violated. 

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please call either the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or, if you are in Austin, the 24/7 SAFEline at 1-512-267-7233. A common misconception is that to get a forensic examination and resources you need to report to the police. While reporting your assault to the police can help build a case against the perpetrator(s), you can also opt for a non-report visit to SAFE to get help. You will then have five years to decide whether to report to police or not, after those five years your forensic kit will be destroyed.

I have been working as a volunteer Sexual Assault Advocate (SAA) with the SAFE Alliance, a sexual assault and domestic violence resource center and shelter serving the Travis County area, since November 2017. I mostly accompany sexual assault survivors to an onsite free clinic provided by SAFE, but I can also be dispatched to accompany a survivor in any hospital in Travis County. I am committed to signing up for at least three eight-hour on-call shifts per month until January 2019.

As an SAA my responsibilities include offering emotional support to people who have been sexually assaulted. I am also responsible for letting the survivor know about their rights as a victim of a crime and what the legal process may entail if they choose to report the crime and press charges. I offer them resources and information about free counseling at SAFE, legal advocacy, the state’s address confidentiality program, and protective orders. People who have been sexually assaulted have the right for me to be in the room with them if they decide to report to law enforcement and/or go through a forensic exam. Advocacy includes making sure that the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) and law enforcement are working within the bounds of the survivor’s rights. I will intervene with law enforcement or the SANE if necessary; for example, if the nurse isn’t putting the survivor’s autonomy first or the survivor needs a break from the questioning and narrative part of the examination. I also provide the survivor with any other resources I might think are beneficial to them or that they might ask for, such as looking up self-defense classes in the area, providing food from the onsite food pantry, providing free clothing for them to wear home if their clothes were taken for evidence, arranging for a free ride home after the accompaniment, or finding a place for them to stay if it is not safe for them to go home.

As an SAA, I also talk to survivors about the effects of trauma on the brain and assure them that whatever they are feeling now, and however they were feeling when the assault happened, is completely normal. I use grounding techniques and comfort items such as stress balls and lavender scents to help bring the survivor out of crisis mode into a calmer state of mind. My advocacy requires following the survivor’s lead throughout the accompaniment in order to help them regain control and agency after it has been forcefully taken away from them. The hopeful end result is that the survivor leaves the clinic or hospital feeling calmer and more knowledgeable about resources than before they entered our care.

Before I began doing this advocacy work, I attended 60 hours of training about working with sexual assault and domestic violence survivors. I expected the training to focus only on the program itself, but I was pleasantly surprised that we went in-depth on systems of oppression, serving diverse populations, and checking our own biases and privileges. Before my first accompaniment, I expected working as an SAA would be emotionally difficult, but ultimately rewarding. I did not expect for there to be so much information to learn and pass on to the survivor. I had done some advocacy work before becoming an SAA, including volunteering as a camp counselor for children with disabilities at a sleepaway summer camp when I was a teenager, attending protests on immigration laws, and signing various petitions. But in my former career as a journalist, I was prohibited from publicly advocating for or against controversial subjects or publicly aligning myself with a political viewpoint. This was extremely frustrating. Immediately, once I stopped writing as a journalist and began thinking about a career change to counseling, I began thinking about what populations I would like to serve and began looking for volunteer opportunities to do so. One of my passion projects as a journalist was writing about trauma-informed care in the foster care system, and a young woman who had been sexually assaulted both before and during her time in the foster system. I decided I wanted to be able to serve other people like her, which led me to SAFE. Becoming an SAA and doing direct service seemed like the perfect fit. Despite my relative inexperience with advocacy work, I knew I would be able to bring my empathy, compassion, and creativity to my work as an SAA to best serve those who have been sexually assaulted.

I am always looking to broaden my scope of knowledge about privilege and systems of oppression. The training worked heavily to make us aware of the systemic barriers we would face doing this work. The training made more clear to me some of the biases I have held that were ingrained in me from the white-centric society I grew up in. In order to effectively become an SAA I had to re-examine my prejudices as an upper class white-passing Latina. I had to dissect and think critically about my own upbringing and how that could affect my advocacy. This is not the kind of work I can do once--it is something I must do continuously. A significant barrier to this work is the slow-moving process of the legal system. Although I have not had to interact with law enforcement directly yet, other than through the victim services branch, it is heartbreaking to have to explain to survivors the realities of the criminal justice system. That, even if they do decide to report the sexual assault to law enforcement, it does not necessarily mean charges will be brought against the perpetrator(s) and if the case does go to trial, bringing perpetrator(s) to justice can be a long, arduous process taking anywhere from months to years. Another systemic barrier is victim-blaming, which is deeply ingrained in our society. At SAFE my job is also to make the survivor aware that the sexual assault was not their fault, but instead something that happened to them as the result of another person’s choices.

To date, I have been on-call nine times and accompanied five survivors ranging from ages 21 to 79. I have learned that the most important attribute for a person working with this population to have is compassion. Working as an SAA for people who have been sexually assaulted requires listening nonjudgmentally, letting silence happen if necessary, and making the survivor feel as comfortable as possible, all while making sure not to draw the focus to myself. It is also incredibly important to be fully present for the survivor. No two situations are going to be alike so it is important to be ready for the unexpected. I have learned that I am strong enough to be a support system for a stranger, and that I am able to keep my own emotions in check to focus on the survivor who needs my help. Many of these aspects of SAA work will also carry over to working with this population as a mental health counselor. I also learned that I still need to work on not taking each case home with me. Some of my accompaniments have been particularly difficult, and I have needed to take the rest of the day off from my normal responsibilities. Slowly, I am getting better at practicing self-care and separating my work as an SAA from my home life. It is really important to decompress and debrief in confidence with my team (my shift supervisor, my backup, and the SANE) after an accompaniment in order to process the experience I just had, and allow my own emotions to come through. It is also important to, when I come home, decompress with my partner and watch a funny TV show or cook a healthy meal or play games together.

As a result of working as a sexual assault advocate I will continue to speak up about consent and speak out against sexual harassment and sexual violence. I plan on integrating care of survivors of sexual assault into my counseling practice. I hope to continue my work with SAFE past my year commitment as long as I have time in my schedule.