For a victim of sexual assault, the attack is traumatic enough, but the process of reporting it to the proper authorities and gathering evidence for prosecution can be just as scary, advocates say.
That’s where the volunteer advocates at Rape Crisis and Sexual Assault Services comes in.
“Everybody who goes to the emergency room – the nurse, the investigator – they all sort of have an agenda. They need to get the information in case they want to prosecute,” said Crisis Specialist Charlotte Murton. “Our advocates are there to inform the patient what their rights are, what their options are and everything.”
If a victim chooses to have evidence collected, the advocate explains the process so the victim knows what to expect. The process can include having a pelvic exam, having hairs taken and having any orifice swabbed that was involved in the assault.
“Our goal is to make it the least traumatic experience in the emergency room that we can, because we know having to tell your story, having to come and have the forensic collection done, is traumatic,” she said.
The organization was founded in 1975 and joined University Hospital in 1985. In Richmond and Columbia counties, about 75 volunteers man the crisis hotline 24 hours a day and more are needed.
“This is something they can do when they’re at home. They don’t have to come (to the center) or to the hospital and sit and wait,” Murton said.
Calls to the hotline are routed to the volunteers who are on call. Volunteers are required to be on call for 24 hours a month in eight- or 12-hour shifts. Then, if an emergency room visit is needed, they have to be able to be at hospital within 30 minutes. (Volunteers respond to all of the area hospitals, including the Veterans Administration and Eisenhower Army Medical Center.)
Anyone can call the hotline, whether an incident happened two minutes ago or two decades ago. If the victim decides an emergency room visit is necessary, the volunteer will meet them there. Sometimes, the volunteer is just there to listen.
“Our volunteers are responsible for making sure the person that makes the call gets to a better place so they can make it through the night until they can get to an emergency room, or go see a physician, or whatever they need to do,” said Volunteer Coordinator Leah Klein.
Aja White has been volunteering with the center for 10 months. She said she likes not getting calls, because it means there are people out there who are not getting raped.
“But I do like coming in and helping people the best way I can,” she said. “Just trying to guide them through the process and being that advocate.”
Dannielle Pope has also been a volunteer for 10 months, but she has a different perspective. Every phone call that does come in is another assault that has been reported. She feels that increased awareness of sexual assault is causing more people to feel comfortable coming forward to report it.
“So with reporting it, which is exactly what we want, we need advocates to handle that caseload, to be able to give people what they deserve,” she said. “We want every single person to be able to do that. There’s only so much staff and so many volunteers.”
Danny Yuk is one of only five male volunteers in the two-county area. He has been a volunteer advocate for six months and said most of the cases he’s dealt with have been assaults on children. But he said while the perception may be that a female victim would be more comfortable with a female advocate, he has not found that to be true.
“I’ll ask them beforehand, ‘Would you like to speak with a female advocate,’” he said.
Often they’ll say no, he said.
“They’re always willing to get some help,” he said.
Murton said there have always been a few male volunteers, but the victims don’t usually care who comes to advocate for them. They’re just happy someone is there.
“I’ve had people tell me before, ‘I don’t care who came in. All I know is someone got out of bed and came in here to care for me,’” she said.
Male volunteers are usually paired with a female volunteer when responding to an adult female victim, Murton said.
It does take a special person to volunteer for Rape Crisis and Sexual Assault Services, because not everyone has the ability to separate the victim from what has happened to them.
“We can’t change what happened. We can’t go back in time and do anything about that, but we can do something about today’s visit and what we do in the emergency room from here on out,” Murton said.
New volunteers are required to go through an intensive 25-hour training that includes presentations from the district attorney’s office, the Richmond and Columbia county sheriff’s offices, and counselors from Georgia Regents University.
“It has to be (intensive), because what our volunteer advocates do is so important, and they’re working with people at a very vulnerable time,” Klein said. “It’s important that they have that intensive training so that they know how to treat people with respect, and so that they know the protocols and what to do when somebody’s assaulted.”
The next training session will be held Sept. 19-23 at University Hospital. Attendance at all dates is required.
For more information about becoming a volunteer advocate, call Klein at (706) 774-2746 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.