Most people, whether they are aware of it or not, are close to a survivor of sexual violence, according to SAFE Berks.
Sexual assault is more common than many people realize, said Meghan Sager of the nonprofit, 255 Chestnut St. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, she said, one in three women and one in six men will suffer sexual violence in their lifetimes.
SAFE Berks offers emergency shelter from physically or sexually abusive situations, counseling, legal support and other services.
"An average of 293,066 individuals ages 12 or older are victims of sexual assault each year in the U.S.," she said. “This means a sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds in this country."
Sager is coordinator of a newly launched countywide Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART.
A joint project of SAFE Berks and the county district attorney's office, the team is designed to help survivors navigate the medical, emotional and legal issues associated with sexual violence and assault crimes.
Working closely with SAFE Berks is a logical partnership for his office, District Attorney John T. Adams said.
“Our office recognizes the importance of having a multidisciplinary approach to the investigation of sexual abuse and that is what the SART team provides,” he said. “When a victim’s emotional and physical well-being is cared for, it makes our job of providing justice for them easier.”
Despite being one of the most invasive and traumatic experiences an individual can have, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, Sager said, noting less than a quarter of every 1,000 incidents are reported.
“We aim to eliminate the stigma and stereotypes that still cause many victims of sexual and interpersonal violence to suffer in silence,” Beth Garrigan, CEO of SAFE Berks, said.
Many victims decide not to report sexual assault due to the actual or perceived stigma associated with sexual violence, she said, and the false perception that the victims were somehow responsible for the crimes committed against them.
Survivors sometimes fear they will not be believed or blame themselves. They also might feel embarrassment or shame. Such negative feelings can be reinforced by the public’s reaction to disclosures of sexual violence, she said. This further traumatizes victims, who have already suffered profound trauma. It also helps protect abusers, leaving them free to assault the same victim again or additional victims.
“We want victims of sexual assault to know this was not their fault, and help is available,” Garrigan said.
A coordinated response of mental health and law enforcement professionals helps minimize trauma to victims and improves investigation into sex crimes and successful prosecution of perpetrators, Sager said. The SART’s multidisciplinary approach supports a victim-centered and trauma-informed focus. This means the team aims more specifically at getting survivors the care and services they need, she said.
Trauma-informed care recognizes symptoms of trauma and acknowledges the role trauma may play in a survivor’s life, said Diane Ellis, director of legal services for SAFE Berks.
“Everyone (in the SART) is on the same page in understanding the response to trauma,” Ellis said. “For example, when victims do not immediately remember details or respond to an assault as expected, it does not mean they are lying.”
Individuals have varying reactions to trauma, she said. After a traumatic event, many survivors need several sleep cycles before they will more clearly remember the event, she said. Snippets of memory may return in bits and pieces over a period of time. This does not mean survivors are inventing or imagining details.
SART members are all trained professionals, experienced in working with victims of severe trauma, Ellis said. The team can provide victim advocates that can lead or accompany survivors every step of the way to healing and justice, from medical and mental health care through the legal system.
“I am really very optimistic about this,” she said. “It is going to make important changes for victims.”