The Center for Women and Families has reported a surge in crisis calls to its helpline of more than 100 percent in the past two months following instances of rape and sexual assault being highlighted in the media.
Sexual assault survivors around the country reached out to hotlines en masse after the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford on Sept. 27. Louisville was no exception, according to The Center for Women and Families, Louisville’s rape crisis and domestic violence center.
From Sept. 1 to Oct. 3, crisis calls to the center were up 123 percent, said Elizabeth Wessels-Martin, president and CEO of The Center for Women and Families.
Ford testified that Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party back in 1982, which he angrily denied in his own testimony on the same day. A short FBI investigation followed, and Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice on Oct. 6.
Calls to the center on Sept. 27 were up 50 percent, Wessels-Martin said, which is similar to the national trend. Several national news outlets reported that calls to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network saw a surge of 201 percent on Sept. 27.
The center’s social media also saw a spike, with some posts seeing as many as 30,000 views, said Kiera Hall, its director of communications.
The “I Believe You” post (pictured above) had more than 300 shares, Wessels-Martin said.
“What we’ve taken away from this is a couple of things: one is that it gives people courage to share their own trauma, but it also triggered some of their own memories,” Wessels-Martin said. “I’m hoping that because he was confirmed that it won’t cause people to shut down. I’m hoping that we can keep moving forward, and we can keep talking about this.”
The ongoing debate online also caused victims to face more trauma triggers than just the testimony.
“I think some of the negative stuff that I’ve seen online is that they’re wanting to blame the victim, they’re staying things like, ‘Well if she hadn’t have just worn this,’ ‘If she hadn’t have been drinking,’ ‘If she hadn’t have put herself in that position.’ Blaming the victim — and that’s what that is — is not holding the abuser accountable for the actions,” Wessels-Martin said. “Blaming the victim only drives the wound deeper because victims are already blaming themselves. So if healing is going to occur, that type of behavior has to stop.”
Wessels-Martin added that victim-blaming is a type of self-preservation.
”We believe that somehow we can control that,” she said. “If she was raped because she was showing cleavage or her butt was hanging out, ‘OK, well I won’t do that and somehow that’s gonna make me safe.’ No! Nobody is focusing on the perpetrator. That’s really where the focus needs to be.”
Lt. David Allen of Louisville Metro Police Department’s Special Victims Unit said they haven’t seen any increase in sexual assault reporting in recent months.
“We have experienced a decline in reported cases in July, August and September as compared to 2017,” Allen said. “It appears that October 2018’s statistics will be very close to October 2017.”
Kentuckians reported 5,021 forcible sex offenses last year, according to the 2017 Crime in Kentucky Report published by state police. Those reports saw a 40 percent clearance rate, meaning an arrest was made or it was cleared by some other means.
There were a total of 434 in Jefferson County, which is a lower rate per capita than several other Kentucky counties. There were 508 non-forcible sex offenses (statutory rape or incest), with a 46 percent clearance rate.
But many assaults are never reported for many reasons.
“I think one of the large reasons (victims did not report) is not being believed,” said Jenny Kuerzi, the center’s supervisor of crisis response.
Until her promotion last week, Kuerzi was a crisis intervention advocate, one of the people who take calls on the 24-hour crisis line. She heard many of the calls that came in after the Kavanaugh hearings.
“You know, going through the legal process, it’s a lot, it’s exhausting, it’s hard, it’s strenuous, it’s scary. A lot of times they’re going to see that person that hurt them if they end up taking it to court,” she said. “We hear as a society and then we know from the work that we do, that they don’t always get prosecuted.”
Kuerzi said the team has had to be very intentional with helping staff take care of themselves during this time, making sure their co-workers take the necessary breaks to ease the stress of listening to the painful stories of the callers.
When a person calls the center’s crisis line, he or she is assigned an advocate who listens to the caller and helps them determine what happens next. Callers don’t have to go to police, and the center doesn’t give legal advice, but the advocates can help the caller understand what may happen if they do report it and what kinds of things they might face if the case goes to court. Advocates also can refer the caller to a therapist who can help him or her process the trauma.
If the caller has just been assaulted, the center can do the forensic examination on site by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, trained to do a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE). The center helps victims by treating wounds, giving the victim a change of clothes, a shower or whatever the the person may need.
But many callers to the hotline in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings just want to talk, Kuerzi said.
“The calls that I have gotten recently have been folks that have been triggered by all this in the media by the Kavanaugh case, that’s kinda what they were looking for, a lot of processing, a lot of talking, a lot of being supported, being heard, being believed,” she said. “They just wanna know they’re not alone.”
Kuerzi, who studied psychology at the University of Louisville, has worked at the center since she was a volunteer during college and has been a full-time employee since graduation. It’s hard work, she said, because listening to people’s trauma is painful, but she loves her job.
“It’s hard; it’s disheartening,” she said. “But it also kind of highlights to me the importance of why we take the calls because I get to be that person that believes them. I get to be that person that helps them talk about what they’ve been through. I just think about all the times that they maybe wanted to or tried and it wasn’t successful, it didn’t feel good. I’m glad that I get to be there to help them talk about what they experienced.”
Wessels-Martin said one thing she wants people to know is that victims are not just women.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in men (as sexual assault victims), and we’ve also seen a significant increase in the LGBTQ+ community,” she said.
Although the testimony was more than a month ago and Kavanaugh was confirmed, the trauma continues.
“It’s something that still affecting people, they’re still being impacted by it. It’s still something we’re taking calls for,” Kuerzi said. “It can be a hard thing to shake once you’ve kinda seen it in the media so much.”