Thanks to Victoria Pickering (Director of Advocacy) & Tyler Lumpkin (Coordinator of Education) from MOCSA (Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault), we took our commitment to helping victims and survivors of sexual abuse to a new level. To improve the work we do with survivors on a regular basis, we needed to make sure our interactions with survivors were done in a way that allows them to feel safe while telling their story.
The trauma is the whole process, not just the event itself. Thanks to MOCSA, we were presented with practical skills and wonderful insights. Did you know that due to the prevalence of sexual abuse in our society, almost everyone is in contact with someone who has been affected by sexual violence, whether directly or indirectly? Unfortunately, we may just not be aware of it. Therefore, we want to share some of the information we obtained from our training in hopes to encourage and educate others about the importance of being trauma-informed:
MOCSA Crisis Line
“MOCSA’s mission is to improve the lives of those impacted by sexual abuse and assault and prevent sexual violence in our community.” MOCSA has a variety of services ranging from advocacy, counseling, education, legal assistance, and a crisis line. MOCSA’s crisis line is available in both Missouri and Kansas for individuals needing help. It can be reached at 816- 531-0233 or 913-642-0233. However, even though it is called a crisis line, it is for anyone who may have questions, need emotional support, or may simply need information or a referral. Calls are answered 24 hours a day in multiple languages.
Sexual Assault Forensic Exams
Unfortunately, not all hospitals are equipped to perform exams for sexual assault and rape. Many Missouri hospitals simply do not have the certified staff required to conduct the exams. Luckily, the Kansas City metro area has nearly 30 hospitals where a survivor can receive a forensic exam with a MOCSA advocate by their side, including:
- University of Kansas Medical Center
- Truman Medical Centers
- Advent Health Hospitals
- St. Luke’s Health System
- Children’s Mercy Hospitals
What is Sexual Violence?
In order to better understand trauma, we must first find an understanding of sexual violence and sexual abuse. Often in the world of advocacy, the terms “sexual violence” and “sexual abuse” are used interchangeably as umbrella terms for a varying degree of sexually violent and abusive acts. “Sexual violence” and “sexual abuse” can be used to refer to rape, trafficking, incest, child sexual abuse, stalking, harassment, intimate partner violence, and unwanted contact.
What is Trauma?
When assisting a survivor of sexual violence, it is helpful to look at the situation through a lens that MOCSA refers to as “Trauma-Informed.” To do this, we need a better grasp on the meaning of trauma and the ways in which it affects victims and survivors.
According to the research and information provided to us by MOCSA, trauma can be defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma is not only a mental and emotional response, but it is a physical experience and reaction as well. During and following a traumatic event such as sexual abuse, trauma physically changes our brain. Trauma triggers chemicals within our brain and our body that influence perception, reaction, and memory. Due to this, traumatic memories can become fragmented and stored in our brains differently than those of a non-traumatic experience.
Because the chemicals influence our perception, reactions, and memory, we do not have control over the way in which the brain and body respond to trauma. The most common non-controllable responses are fight, flight, or freeze. This can make it extremely difficult for victims and survivors to react and recall the events in the order they occurred. Everyone has a different response in this unimaginable situation; however, being trauma-informed will help us to understand the responses and equip us with the tools to assist victims and survivors to the best of our ability.
The 3 Lenses to Use When Reviewing Sexual Violence
View the situation from their point of view – It is important to try and view the situation from the victim/survivor’s point of view. You must realize that their current behavior will be dramatically impacted due to the violence they have endured. Everyone responds to trauma differently and we can tailor our support to their individual needs.
Re-traumatization cannot be avoided – No matter how hard you try to avoid it, re- traumatization will happen. There will be a trigger that sets off a memory. All you can do is to provide a safe place for survivors when their trauma resurfaces during their recollection of events.
Focus on the needs and concerns of the survivor – It is important that the needs and concerns of the survivor be the top priority. Creating a safe and empowering environment for survivors will contribute to their safety and well-being when they are disclosing events and seeking help. This allows the survivor to have a voice in the process.
Focus on the offender’s behavior – Throughout the questions and interactions with victims of sexual violence, the main focus should be taking into account what we know about the offender. This can be accomplished by focusing on the offender’s actions and behaviors during the events, rather than questioning the victim about the way in which they themselves acted during the events. Focusing on the offender’s behaviors will provide an opportunity to broaden the scope of the investigation beyond solely what the victim has experienced.
How Being Trauma-Informed Helps
An important aspect of being trauma-informed is knowing how to better communicate and interact with victims and survivors of sexual violence. Here are some tips that we have learned through our training with MOCSA.
- Start where the victim is! It is important to understand where the victim/survivor is mentally, emotionally, and physically. We need to understand that they have endured an extremely traumatic event, and we need to hold ourselves and others accountable and approach them and their experience with understanding, respect, and non-judgment.
- Talk with the survivor, do not interrogate! When disclosing such a hurtful and deeply traumatic experience, victims and survivors need listening ears and a safe environment. It is important that they are safe and do not feel threatened or interrogated when reporting the events and seeking assistance. This takes immense amounts of courage, and it is never easy for survivors to talk about and relive the experiences, known as re-traumatization.
- Give the victim/survivor choice! Rather than assuming that we know what is best for the victim or survivor, ask them how they would like to proceed in the matter. Give them the option to choose what they feel is best for them at that moment. Assisting victims and survivors through a traumatic experience is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Each individual has unique wants and needs that must be taken into account every step of the way. Instead of assuming their wants and needs, ask how you can support them through the
- Refrain from asking “Why?” When a victim of sexual violence or sexual abuse is disclosing the events to you, refrain from asking questions regarding WHY they were at the place they were or WHY they were around the perpetrator. This is very harmful language, and it assumes the responsibility of the crime is on the victim rather than the offender. The victim does not have to justify their actions and whereabouts for us to understand the “cause” of the assault. Questions should remain “offender-focused” as much as possible. The questions should be based on the actions and the behaviors of the offender, as the offender is the one who committed sexual violence against the victim and should hold the responsibility for the events that occurred.
As a firm who works diligently to assist victims and survivors of sexual violence and sexual abuse, Monsees & Mayer P.C. takes great pride in the education and awareness that MOCSA has shared with us. We are thankful to have had this opportunity to work with such a great organization, and cannot express enough gratitude to MOCSA for providing our team with an abundance of information to better serve our community. We are proud to say that Monsees & Mayer P.C. is Trauma-Informed.
All information included was provided by MOCSA. For more information regarding their advocacy and education programs, please visit them at: https://www.mocsa.org