Survivors honored during Sexual Assault Awareness Month

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From left, Jen Carroll (hotline advocate), Rochelle Pearce (housing advocate), Shannon Lowery (legal advocate), Maria Kacin (bilingual advocate) and Diana Diaz (crisis advocate) wear and pass out teal ribbons in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. (Courtesy Photo)

From left, Jen Carroll (hotline advocate), Rochelle Pearce (housing advocate), Shannon Lowery (legal advocate), Maria Kacin (bilingual advocate) and Diana Diaz (crisis advocate) wear and pass out teal ribbons in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
(Courtesy Photo)

By Christine Bolaños 

An elderly woman alone in her apartment. A young college student walking back to her dorm room. A boy playing outside with friends. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time. When it does, it forever changes victims’ lives and the lives of those around them.

“If a survivor makes an outcry or tells you they’ve been assaulted, an appropriate response is to tell them, ‘I care about you. I want you to know you’re not alone and that there are people who want to help you,’” recommended Patty Conner, CEO of Hope Alliance Crisis Center.

She has dedicated 16 years to helping survivors get through the most trying times of their lives. The crisis center offers services and developing partnerships that can lead to hope, healing and prevention.

Hope Alliance was founded as a rape crisis center in 1984 and expanded to include services for domestic violence victims in the late 1980s. It opened a 24-hour emergency shelter in 1980. The center, which is headquartered in Round Rock, has outreach offices in Liberty Hill, Georgetown, Cedar Park, Taylor and Hutto.

Hope Alliance is a founding member of the countywide Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) established in 2004. The crisis center aims to create an environment where violence and abuse are not tolerated in the community. Staff members provide education, violence prevention services and crisis intervention to survivors of family and sexual violence.

According to the crisis center’s website, www.hopealliancetx.org, one in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In 2011, there were 18,088 incidents of sexual assault in Texas. In Williamson and Travis counties, there were 1,169 reported sexual assaults that same year.

Seventy-five percent of sexual assault incidents occur in a home. More than 50 percent of all sexual assaults involve acquaintances or friends.

There are 17.7 million American women who have been victims of attempted or completed rape. In 85 percent of sexual assaults, the offender was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the incident.

The website reports that 54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. In 2011, children between the ages of 10 and 14, were sexually assaulted more than any other age group.

Sexual assault survivors are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.

It is because of these harrowing statistics that the month of April is dedicated nationwide to increasing awareness of the sexual assault epidemic.

“It’s one of those topics that still carries a great deal of stigmatism,” Conner said. “Anything we can do to help create a space to talk about sexual assault I think is a good thing.”

Hope Alliance, local law enforcement agencies and hospitals have teal ribbons community members can pick up and wear during the month of April in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. April 27 is Denim Day where anyone is invited to wear jeans to make a stance for all the survivors of sexual assault who were made to feel they provoked an assault by wearing tight jeans.

“At Hope Alliance, we like to use the term ‘survivor,’” Connor said. “The victim needs to see their future. Their future is of a survivor not as a victim.”

Hope Alliance offers accompaniment, education and emotional support.

“When a sexual assault survivor goes for his or her forensic exam, we provide emotional support and help understand what their rights are as a crime victim,” Conner said. “We provide a range of services including counseling, support groups, legal advocates on staff who can help with protective orders and applying for crime victims’ compensation funds.”

She said the crisis center served about 1,000 primary and secondary sexual assault survivors. Secondary survivors are typically family members or friends. Conner said most sexual assault survivors keep quiet about their experiences. They suffer in silence often with symptoms of anxiety or depression.

“There is a lot of shame and guilt associated with being a survivor of sexual assault,” Conner said. “What family, friends and co-workers can do is to express their concern and let the survivor know they’re not alone.”

The family member, friend or co-worker should let the survivor know of various resources available to the survivor including Hope Alliance.

“If a survivor chooses to share that they’re a victim the most important thing to do is to believe them and not judge them,” Conner advised.

Hope Alliance is a state-certified sexual assault program for the county, which means local hospitals and law enforcement are equipped to connect survivors with the center.

Those who want to help should visit www.hopealliancetx.org to help fulfill the center’s wish list or to learn how to become involved as a volunteer.

The number of survivors that have received support or resources from Hope Alliance and its outreach offices has grown by 140 percent over the last five years.

Conner attributes this to the growing population in Williamson County as well as her hope that it is becoming more acceptable for survivors to reach out for help.

Men, in particular, have felt the stigma of reaching out for help. Conner said the response should be the same for men.

“Let that individual know that it is not their fault and that they are not alone,” she reiterated.

Survivors are encouraged to call Hope Alliance’s hotline, 800-460-SAFE (7233), to get the help and support they need and deserve.

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