Buncombe County Family Justice Center: A Path to Strength, Safety & Hope

With the recent violence here in Asheville, we are deeply saddened for the victims and their loved ones, but we are also hopeful that with the opening of the Family Justice Center this summer, we will continue to improve our community’s services to survivors and reduce sexual and domestic violence in Buncombe County.
What is a Family Justice Center?

The first Family Justice Center was created in San Diego in 2002, and the model has spread to many other communities throughout the United States, and even internationally. It is a “one-stop” center with a multi-disciplinary team to provide the comprehensive services that survivors need. A family justice center is a coordinated community response to sexual and domestic violence that brings together law enforcement, non-profits, and governmental agencies in collaboration to provide the best possible services to survivors. Here locally, these agencies will include Our VOICE, Helpmate, Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office domestic and sexual violence units, Pisgah Legal Services, Forensic Nurse Examiners from Mission Hospital, and Health and Human Services.

Why This Model?
Family Justice Centers provide one location of comprehensive services for survivors, which makes the system less complicated to navigate. Survivors will not have to make as many phone calls, fill out as many referrals, or tell their story to as many people, which allows them to focus on their safety and healing process. The central location for services also provides greater opportunities for interagency communication and support. This creates a strong level of collaboration between each agency, which will help us to continue to improve our services to survivors. Below are the overall goals that we believe this model will help us to achieve in our community.
Goals of the FJC:
• Eliminate duplication
• Increase arrest and prosecution of offenders
• Reduce fear and anxiety for victims
• Increase victim safety
• Reduce sexual and domestic violence

The Family Justice Center will be located at 35 Woodfin Street, and will be opening later this summer. Stay tuned for more information about the Family Justice Center as the opening gets closer. We are continuing to work towards ending sexual violence in our community, and we are excited for the coordinated community response that the FJC will bring. Thank you for all of your support!

Soap on a Rope, Slippery Slope?

Witty banter, catch phrases, and prison rape jokes are common rhetoric in our society. So I ask, is the image and joke soap on a rope, a slippery slope? Are we encouraging, condoning and finding sexual violence funny? The roaring laughter that inevitably follows suggests that a tool used to reduce risk of sexual assault while incarcerated is found hysterical. Yet, this kind of humor encourages sexual violence, especially for individuals who are detained for various reasons. Social media, movies, and music sensationalize and draw attention to the issue of prison rape. What is rarely portrayed are the long term effects of sexual assault. Experiencing sexual violence is a devastating event in anyone’s life and the effects of sexual violence on inmates is exacerbated by powerlessness, facing their attacker on a daily basis, and limited to no resources or support following the assault.

The perpetuation of prison rape culture further silences survivors of sexual assault, condones violence, and dehumanizes the invisible members of our community, inmates. No person deserves to be sexually assaulted, regardless of their criminal history. Sexual assault should not be a part of their sentence, and flagrant disregard of the issue can easily be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment.

Nearly two million people in the United States are incarcerated at any given time. Twelve million admissions occur each year, and the jail and prison system can often act as a revolving door. Nearly 200,000 incidences of sexual assault are reported each year occurring in the detention facility. The most alarming fact is that this is comparable to the number of women reporting sexual assault each year in the general public. A large majority of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, and many have not yet been found guilty of any crime but are incarcerated while awaiting trial.

To truly call ourselves advocates for ending sexual violence we must expand our views and afford services and attention to all victims of sexual assault, as there are no bad victims. No one asks to be sexually assaulted. All humans should have the right and control over their own personal bodies and space. Instead of viewing inmates as social pariahs, see them as your fellow man, parent, sibling, neighbor, or best friend. Legislation has been passed to afford rights and services to these invisible community members. It’s known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Change your rhetoric, educate yourself, and as you advocate for social issues, whether it be Cecil the lion, racial issues, or issues pertaining to gay rights, remember everyone’s rights and safety matter, and as a community we are responsible for the conditions and our attitudes. So yes, soap on a rope, is a slippery slope. The conditions of our communities are a direct reflection of our consciousness.

–Heather is the Volunteer Coordinator at Our VOICE.

Sexual Assault and Homelessness: A Vulnerable Population

Over half a million people are experiencing homelessness on any given night here in the United States, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  People experience homelessness due to a variety of different factors such as a lack of affordable housing, poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, the decline in available public assistance, serious mental illness, and a lack of affordable health care if themselves or a family member becomes ill.

Once a person is experiencing homelessness, he or she is now living in a dangerous environment where their basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing are no longer being met.  They also struggle with where to shower, brush their teeth, use the bathroom, and other hygiene processes that those of us who are housed often do not think about.  To attend to all of these basic needs while also looking for the limited affordable housing and employment that is available makes all of these decisions and tasks all the more stressful and overwhelming, which only makes getting out of homelessness even more difficult for the individual or family.

Not only do women experiencing homelessness have all of this to deal with, but the condition of homelessness itself also dramatically increases women’s risk of being sexually assaulted.  Women on the streets do not have the same level of safety provided to them as women who are housed under a roof.  Ninety-two percent of women experiencing homelessness report having experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives.  Over 66 percent of these women experienced severe physical violence from a caretaker, and 42 percent had been sexually assaulted during childhood.  Sixty percent of women experiencing homelessness report having been abused by the age of 12.  This type of childhood trauma can be a factor in how someone began experiencing homelessness, and can potentially contribute to mental health conditions such as PTSD or the risk of substance abuse, which only makes it more difficult to escape homelessness with limited social services.

At Our VOICE we recognize that women experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to violence, and we hope to better serve this community.  Zac has recently joined the Our VOICE team as our new Outreach Counselor, which means that he goes out and tells underserved populations about our services and he provides counseling services to those that are interested.  We also realize that it could be very difficult to process these issues in counseling if you are worried about where you are going to sleep that night, or when you will eat your next meal.  For that reason, our Client Services Coordinator, Jerry, is expanding case management services here at Our VOICE.  He helps connect clients to outside resources such as food, housing, and transportation to assist people with all of the other complicated issues that they may be dealing with when they come here for counseling.  There is still a great deal to do to end both homelessness and sexual violence, but we will continue to strive to better serve this vulnerable population.

-Jerry is the Client Services Coordinator at Our VOICE

    References:

1. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Housing and homelessness in the United States of America: 2014.
2. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. No safe place: Sexual assault in the lives of homeless women: 2011.
3. Browne, Angela, and Shari S. Bassuk. “Intimate violence in the lives of homeless and poor housed women: Prevalence and patterns in an ethnically diverse sample.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 67.2 (1997): 261-278.

Only YES means YES: Navigating the waters of consent education

I teach a lot of students about the root causes of sexual violence and consent. The other day I was in a high school classroom and I said something to the effect of “the absence of NO does not mean YES. Consent must be a verbal agreement between both people.”

Immediately I saw a student’s hand go up. The simple question they asked has been on my mind since then. “What if the person cannot verbally say YES?” Now, I know that those that are deaf or unable to audibly express themselves can certainly give enthusiastic consent in other ways besides verbally. However, this question got me thinking about the ways we teach about sexual violence and consent and how we can begin to make this type of education more culturally specific, contextual and sensitive.

Each time I go into a classroom I learn something new from students and while I know we can always improve as prevention educators, here are a few things I think are important to address:

Power dynamics
Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within a complex social structure that benefits some social groups more than others. All forms of violence, sexual violence included, are buttressed by a foundation of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and many other types of power over that drive, normalize and make perpetration socially acceptable.

While conversations about power dynamics can be challenging to bring up in the classroom, they are extremely necessary. Power, control and entitlement are the main motivators of all forms of sexual violence. These conversations should be the foundation for dismantling systems of oppression, transforming social norms and creating a culture of consent.

Intersectionality
Intersectionality has become such a buzzword of late. It has become a buzzword, however, precisely because of its importance to social justice and social change. Statistics prove that people with more intersecting oppressed identities are more likely to experience sexual assault and violence. Starting at a perspective that allows us to understand that each individual has been shaped by society in unique ways based on their complex identities, allows us to:

  1. 1. Acknowledge each persons’ experiences as true and valid for them, and to
  2. 2. Recognize the need to describe oppressions as interconnected phenomena that cannot be examined separately

Our prevention programming should aim to engage students in conversations about intersectionality, because it translates directly to students’ lived experiences.

Language
As Prevention Educator, the language I use in the classroom when talking about sexual violence and consent is extremely important. For example, I cannot say, “verbal agreement,” and end the conversation there, when I know not everyone who is capable of consenting to sex is able to make a verbal agreement. I can engage and challenge the students with language by saying, “consent needs to be an enthusiastic, verbal agreement between two people. But what are some ways those who cannot verbally express themselves might express consent?”

Language and the ways we use it is one of the main ways we become blinded by our privileges. As educators, we will inevitably make mistakes with language over and over and over again. But it is okay; breathe. By acknowledging, learning from, and integrating those language considerations we can include and empower more students each time we teach.

Involving youth
This one may seem like a no brainer; of course we want to involve youth in consent education. But what I mean, is for sexual violence and consent education to be truly transformative, we must engage young people in what is important to them. This of course is easier said than done, but it all starts with listening.

Listening is the first thing we teach advocates working with survivors of sexual assault. It should also be the first thing we learn as educators. Listening to the lived experiences of young people and validating those experiences without judgment can be a powerful stepping stone to preventing violence and shifting social norms.

Focus on the perpetrators
Finally, the bottom line for prevention education is to shift attitudes and behaviors and this involves a lot of undoing conditioning around victim blaming. Our focus on prevention needs to be understanding predatory behavior and stopping perpetration of violence. Our culture’s focus on victim behavior, language, dress and actions creates shame and guilt for survivors of sexual violence. Through education we can empower students and community members to recognize perpetrator behavior and stand up and speak out against it.

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Much more could be said about education for the prevention of sexual violence and the creation of a culture of consent. We still need a lot of research around consent education, bystander intervention, perpetrator psychology and other topics related to the field. There are still some big, complex questions that require deep reflection and analysis. How is consent truly negotiated between two people willing to engage in sexual activity? Can those in marginalized positions truly give their consent? While sitting with these huge questions, it is comforting to know and be able to teach young people that no one deserves to be raped, that everyone has the right to decide when, how and with whom to have sex, and that anyone who has experienced sexual assault has options for healing available to them.

–Matt is the Prevention Education Coordinator at Our VOICE.

Benefits of Blind Reporting

68% of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement, making it one of the most under reported violent crimes in the United States.1 While Our VOICE strongly believes that the choice to report to law enforcement is the survivor’s and the survivor’s alone, some victims who are hesitant to report to law enforcement may not be aware that another reporting option exists.

Here in Buncombe County, survivors have the option to file what is called a “blind report”. A blind report is an anonymous report, where a victim can chose to not include any identifying information in the report. They can, however, include details of the assailant and details of the crime. This report does not initiate a formal investigation and the suspect will not be questioned or contacted. Law enforcement uses the report as purely informational means.

Blind reporting can be of great value to survivors of sexual assault. A survivor may not be ready to commit to a full investigation and formal police report. A blind report provides a way for a survivor to document important details should they choose to file a formal report later on. The process of reporting to law enforcement may also empower survivors by allowing them to regain a sense of control and personal autonomy. Victims who are initially hesitant to file a formal report at the time of the assault may change their minds when given the option of supporting or being supported by other victims of the same assailant. The testimony of a prior victim can help with the prosecution of another victim’s case by aiding the district attorney in illustrating a pattern of behavior of the perpetrator.2

Providing a blind report option benefits not only the survivor, but law enforcement and the community as a whole as well. Information given in the blind report can be used to track perpetrator’s MOs, suspect descriptions, and victim demographics. Law enforcement can take note if a similar crimes have been reported against the same person. Blind reporting benefits the community as we can capture a more accurate and comprehensive picture of how many sexual assaults are being committed.

It is important to note that not all law enforcement agencies have an anonymous reporting option. Our VOICE can help you figure out if a particular law enforcement agency outside of Buncombe County allows victims to file blind reports. If you or someone you know is interested in filing a blind report, please contact Our VOICE for more information.

–Stefanie is the Court Advocate at Our VOICE. For more information on court advocacy services, click here.

References
1. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2008-2012
2. Garcia, S. & Henderson, M. Blind Reporting of Sexual Violence. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume:68 Issue:6 Dated:June 1999.

Sexual Violence and Mothering: How Sexual Violence Can Affect a Woman During Pregnancy and Childbirth

Sexual violence affects people differently at different times in their lives. I remember when I found out I was expecting my first child, one of the first questions my midwife asked me was “Have you ever experienced sexual abuse?” and all I could think was “huh…that’s interesting.” I was just a few months away from getting licensed as a counselor, and all I could think was “huh…that’s interesting.” I wasn’t sure why she’d asked me the question!

10 years later, I work with moms, many of whom have experienced sexual violence in their past and I find that question fascinating. As we move through our lives, our experiences, both positive and negative, increase our risks or resiliencies in so many different ways. When I sit with moms as they talk about how sexual violence has impacted their lives, I think back to that question my midwife asked me. Why did she ask? And what does she do when an expecting mom says “yes”? It turns out that sexual violence can impact expecting and new moms in very specific ways. There are several eerie similarities between childhood sexual abuse and pregnancy that can trigger old memories, emotions, interpersonal patterns, and gut responses.

Let’s start with the cognitive. Growing a baby, considering new life, and shifting into the new role of parenthood often brings up memories of one’s own childhood. If one’s childhood included sexual abuse, feelings of guilt and shame, and family conflict, then the plan to bring a child into the world often retriggers these memories. Some moms begin to worry that their child might go through similar traumas. Some fear they won’t be able to protect their child. Some even worry that they themselves, for unknown reasons, attract predators. On the other hand, if the mom experienced family support, healthy boundaries, and a nurturing, validating environment in childhood, the prospect of becoming a parent could be exciting and hopeful.

Prenatal care can share some dynamics with childhood sexual abuse that can re-traumatize an expectant mom. An unequal power dynamic between provider and patient, in which the provider expects unquestioning compliance, and the mom experiences loss of voice and choice, can remind a mom of the relationship dynamic between her childhood self and her adult abuser. On the other hand, a respectful sharing of power between provider and patient can assist in a mom’s healing. Care providers who involve moms in decisions about their care, ask consent before invasive exams, and respond sensitively to anxiety or fear, can help diminish that power imbalance.

Often times, childbirth itself can involve a certain loss of control for moms. And pain. And intrusive interventions. And putting someone else’s needs above their own. Even commands to “relax so it won’t hurt so much.” Imagine what this might be like for someone who was sexually abused as a child! Sensitive preparation before the birth, both for the mom and for her birth attendants, can go a long way toward decreasing triggers at this time.

Once moms get through all that, and go home with their little bundles of joy, they’re home-free, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Postpartum depression strikes after about 20% of births in general, and past depression puts a mom at higher risk. (Note: childhood sexual abuse also increases risk for depression). Not only does postpartum depression feel HORRIBLE, but many moms who get it feel very ashamed and try to hide it. Sound familiar? The secrecy and shame around postpartum depression can mimic the secrecy and shame around childhood sexual abuse, especially if the abuser was a respected member of the family or community, and the child was “not supposed” to be feeling the way they did! Breaking the silence and providing support go a long way to helping the survivor of sexual assault, and a long way to helping the survivor of postpartum depression.

Although there are many ways in which the pain of childhood sexual abuse can resurface during pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting, there are also ways in which healthy recovery can strengthen a parent’s abilities and confidence. Most of the moms I work with are determined not to ever let this happen to their children. They eagerly soak up information about teaching healthy communication and relationship skills. They ask how they can recognize predators and protect their children. They recognize coercive interpersonal patterns, are willing to entertain suspicions, and encourage their children to talk openly with them. They are ready believe their kids. They tell them “It’s not your fault and I’m here for you.”

Some moms find unexpected healing in strengthening their own children against the risks of sexual abuse. They raise and support their own children in ways they needed when they were small, and for some, this is like healing a little part of themselves. Parents who decide to break intergenerational cycles of abuse have a tough road ahead, but so many of them embrace the task with passion, motivation, and love. They are trailblazers, changing the world one child at a time.

—Rebecca is the bilingual counselor at Our VOICE.