The overwhelming number of women who have participated in the #MeToo movement has drawn renewed attention to issues of sexual violence, which remains pervasive in our culture. This newly risen wave has created a refreshed platform for addressing gaps in counselor training for sexual assault response.
Even though statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the U.S. will face sexual assault at some point in their lifetime, very few counseling programs have specific courses designed for training sexual assault response. Instead, counselors learn this “on the job”; we do our best to educate ourselves and to grow based on our experiences.
Those of us who have a special interest in working with this population seek additional training to acquire competence and to keep up with research in the field. Ongoing program evaluation at treatment sites is crucial so that we remain responsible for the outcome of our work and, at the same time, accountable to the public and to the third-party payers. We must constantly ask ourselves: Does what I do make a difference? Is my approach effective?”
The more common experience counselors have working with sexual assault survivors is in the traditional therapy setting, whether one-on-one or in groups, on campuses or within specialized agencies. Working with sexual assault survivors can be long and complicated, but it is often a rewarding journey of healing. Each of us tailors our own theoretical approach and framework to the needs of survivors with the techniques our profession has awarded us. So, we tend to approach sexual assault response from this end, engaging in short- or long-term therapy with survivors at some point on their journeys to heal.
An additional way to respond to sexual assault is at its onset, from a crisis intervention perspective. Traditionally, this is where victim advocates come in. Most counselors are not victim advocates, and most victim advocates are not counselors. Likewise, not all sexual assault survivors seek out victim advocate services, especially if they are already in counseling for other things. Regardless, counselors are often on the front lines of sexual assault reports and can be better prepared to handle such situations if they properly equip themselves.
To provide an adequate, timely and holistic response to sexual assault, it is essential that we learn about victim advocacy and incorporate some critical elements of this training into our counseling work when appropriate. Given the lack of specialized preparation during counseling training, I believe that counselors clearly need more tools to help them better respond to sexual assault, and I believe a need exists for an interdisciplinary approach regarding education, prevention and response efforts.
Based on the statistics, at some point during our practice as counselors, we will all encounter a client who reports sexual assault. I have worked in two campus-based counseling centers, and the number of students who reported sexual assault was startlingly high. According to 2016 statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence. In addition, based on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published in 2011, it is estimated that 1.3 million women were raped in the past 12 months in the U.S. What I have learned over the course of the past 11 years in practice — as well as from my clients, students and colleagues — is that we, as counselors, need stronger training for providing a more timely and appropriate response to sexual assault.
In attempting to provide additional resources for my students who want to specialize in sexual assault response, I have found that the availability of trainings and educational programs varies widely from state to state. Information on these services and resources is scattered. We need to create education, training and workshops for those who want to specialize in this work. Perhaps what is called for is a nationwide network in which training and specialty certifications are streamlined and accessible in every state.
Meanwhile, I have attempted to put together a user-friendly diagram for counselors working with sexual assault survivors. In the remainder of this article, I will present a model that may help to organize sexual assault response into groupings for individuals who want to easily locate the appropriate next steps after a sexual assault or rape report. Allowing the survivor to have a voice and a choice in what comes next should serve as the most significant guiding element for counselors.
Response to assault based on immediacy
One important recommendation is to always consider how the individual refers to herself (or himself) before using terms such as “victim” or “survivor.” The chart above walks readers through the required or recommended action steps immediately after a sexual assault report.
First, assess for safety. When working with victims of crime, it is critical to always consider their immediate needs first. It would be challenging and potentially damaging to the client to process any emotional responses without first addressing the physical or physiological needs, much like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy directed.
Second, evaluate psychological needs. What are the individual’s most pressing psychological needs? This is where counselors apply their attending skills and provide the individual with empathy and respect.
From the tens of thousands of unprocessed rape kits (per a 2015 article in USA Today) to recent public rulings reducing sentences for college assaults (CNN, 2016) to new proposed laws that would permit a rapist parental rights (CNN, 2016), it appears that our society sometimes is confused about who the victim is and often participates in victim blaming. This widespread phenomenon often affects the ability of victims to recognize their experiences as assault and themselves as victims. It is imperative that counselors work against these societal/cultural norms by first questioning their own views.
Professionals need to check their assumptions and biases regarding sexual assault and who the victim is prior to sitting down with these individuals face-to-face. Counselors must become outspoken advocates for this population and ensure that the best psychological services are provided for survivors of this crime. This requires us to be nonjudgmental and to assert that a sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault. We should include assurances that the survivor is not responsible for either the crime or for the direct effects of that crime.
Third, lay out legal options. Does the survivor want to report the assault? Counselors do not provide legal counsel, but they do need to be informed about certain key elements when working with survivors who discuss legal actions. Most important, never make these individuals feel pressured to report; always allow them to make their own informed decisions.
If survivors decide that they do want to report the crime, inform them of the following:
- Pursuing legal action requires collaboration with legal services, local police and forensic services. It is vital to process crime scenes immediately while there is still viable evidence and a better chance of locating witnesses to interview for accurate findings.
- In some states, individuals can access treatment and counseling free of charge when they report the assault.
- Reporting the assault can be empowering for some survivors and can help them regain some sense of agency. Reporting does not, however, guarantee that the perpetrator will be prosecuted. It is vital to avoid giving survivors false hope and expectations. In fact, a very small percentage of reported sexual assaults end up with the arrest of the perpetrator. According to a 2016 CNN report, of the nearly 300,000 average annual rape and sexual assault victimizations between 2005 and 2010, only about 12 percent resulted in arrests. Such statistics shouldn’t be shared to discourage individuals from pursuing legal actions. Rather, it is critical to process the expectations of sexual assault survivors in counseling.
It is important to clarify the role of the forensic examiner (or the sexual assault nurse examiner) to sexual assault survivors. These medical professionals are very different from the nurses one might associate with a hospital emergency room. Instead, they are fulfilling a criminal justice role during the sexual assault exam, which is essentially a procedure to collect evidence. It is also imperative to explain the purpose of this forensic exam, the time sensitivity, the statute of limitations and the costs associated with the exam.
If survivors decide to pursue a forensic exam, notify them that they can terminate the exam at any time and can ask for a victim advocate or anyone else they want to be with them in the room. In most states, survivors of sexual assault incur no cost for the exam. The cost depends on what is included in the exam, what lab work and testing are performed, whether testing and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases are completed and whether any injuries incurred during the assault are treated. It is important to check any laws that may hinder the process in any way so that no unrealistic promises are made to survivors.
Counselors working with sexual assault survivors should know that many states process sexual assault forensic exams and related services under the Violence Against Women Act. One valuable resource for professionals and survivors is the RAINN website (rainn.org/articles/rape-kit), which offers a detailed rundown of what happens during the forensic exam. This information helps individuals grasp the importance of the forensic exam for evidence collection and assists them in making informed decisions. For all these reasons and more, independent advocacy is crucial for sexual assault survivors during the exam and throughout the entire process.
Immediate vs. delayed reporting
Providing survivors with information regarding the pros and cons of immediate versus delayed reporting can help them make educated decisions and aid the reporting process. Most of the information that follows in this section on the important elements of reporting and what reporting entails is based on the work of Andrea Sundberg and Dorene Whitworth at the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence.
When a survivor of sexual assault arrives at the emergency room, the police are notified. Officers will interview the survivor for a thorough account of the assault. This helps them collect all of the crucial details while the person’s memory is fresh, giving them a better chance of collecting evidence to aid the legal process.
Providing a report of the assault to police is not the same thing as pressing charges against the perpetrator. Those are separate processes. It is vital for counselors to talk about this with sexual assault survivors and to prepare them as best they can. Not all police officers are trained to work with sexual assault survivors, and this interview may be triggering for these individuals.
Survivors may also choose to delay the reporting until they feel better prepared to handle it emotionally. The potential consequences of delayed reporting can include additional hurdles for thorough investigation, a lack of witnesses and a fading of the person’s memory regarding details of the assault. Delayed reporting may also affect the perceptions and responses of prosecutors and jurors and influence the prosecutor’s ability to obtain a conviction.
No report to law enforcement
Counselors working with sexual assault survivors may assume that the best direction for survivors to take is to immediately report the crime. There are many reasons why survivors may not want to report to law enforcement, however.
Most individuals hesitate to report immediately when there is fear of further danger to self, family or others. Others hesitate to report because of cultural beliefs or because of financial dependence on the perpetrator. Some individuals fear the investigation might reveal some kind of illegal activity related to underage drinking, prostitution, immigration status or other issues. Other individuals are simply terrified at the prospect of facing their perpetrators.
Some survivors will not report to law enforcement because of a sense of shame or embarrassment or because they worry about being blamed for the assault. There are also survivors who do not want to get their perpetrators in trouble because they are family members or are current or former intimate partners of the survivor. Some individuals may fear retaliation, especially if the perpetrator is their superior, employer or supervisor. If the perpetrator is a popular figure, survivors may fear social condemnation and disbelief if they report. Some survivors may lack trust in, or have had a prior negative experience with, law enforcement or the criminal justice system.
After obtaining 40 hours of intensive training in sexual assault response, I volunteered as a victim advocate, providing resources over a crisis hotline to individuals in central Ohio. Often, I would get calls from women saying they had been sexually assaulted by someone involved in law enforcement or the criminal justice system. These women feared more severe consequences if they chose to report. In some cases, these perpetrators were the survivors’ past or current partners; in other cases, they were not related to the survivor at all. In one particular case, the survivor told me over the phone that she feared going to the emergency room because the same police officer who had sexually assaulted her might respond to the call while he was on duty.
Regardless of whether individuals choose to report an assault, a forensic exam is available to them. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 made it easier for all survivors to obtain a “Jane Doe rape kit,” through which they are given a code to identify themselves should they choose to report at a later date. Under this regulation, survivors must be offered a forensic exam and reimbursement for the cost of the exam without being required to participate in the criminal justice system or cooperate with law enforcement. This applies to all states in their applications for STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grants. In addition, survivors are not required to use their insurance benefits to pay for the forensic exams, which can offer them extra protection.
When educating sexual assault survivors about all of the possible options, it is critical not to make any promises that cannot subsequently be fulfilled. It is important to first find out how specific jurisdictions work and what procedures they follow. It is also imperative that counselors not pressure a survivor into any of these steps or decisions just because the counselor thinks it might be the best option. These individuals were already stripped of their choice and autonomy when they were coerced into nonconsensual sex, so it is vital that this agency be given back to them as part of the process that follows.
It is also important for counselors to know that sexual assault survivors are not limited to only one type of reporting. Indeed, there are various kinds of reporting, including:
- No law enforcement involvement
- Law enforcement involvement, storage only
- Law enforcement involvement, anonymous/blind report (blind reporting is not the same as a third-party report; blind reporting means that the victim is involved but not identified)
For additional details on each of these options, refer to usmc-mccs.org/articles/restricted-vs-unrestricted-reports-know-your-options/.
When disclosure of a sexual assault is made by a student or supervisee, it is crucial to be trained in your institution’s Title IX regulations and requirements to respond adequately. The response will also depend on whether the individual is considered under the age of consent in your state.
I usually immediately connect students or supervisees with an on-campus victim advocate who then walks them through the entire process. I offer my expertise and answer their questions and concerns to ease some of their fears before referring them. If they request that I make the initial contact with the victim advocate and help facilitate the meeting, I offer to go to the first meeting with them.
The process of disclosing a sexual assault and deciding whether to report it understandably provokes anxiety in survivors. They are dealing with multiple effects that may include physical, psychological, spiritual and other issues. The most important piece for me is to make sure that I am present, available, attentive, caring, empathetic, responsive and nonjudgmental, and that I am able to provide a safe place for the survivor. I recommend that we all frequently assess our assumptions and biases regarding sexual assault and who the victims are because these are the nuances that can erect barriers between us and sexual assault survivors.
For more information about campus sexual assault prevention and services, see the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault 2014 fact sheet at justice.gov/ovw/page/file/910266/download.
Short-term crisis intervention vs. long-term counseling: Short-term services for sexual assault survivors include the initial crisis response and intervention immediately following the assault. Long-term mental health services might include a variety of therapeutic components such as assessments, goal setting, treatment planning and step-by-step work through each mental health concern and progress toward therapeutic goals.
A 2014 White House task force study of a community sample of rape survivors found that survivor outcomes were better in communities that had a greater number of post-assault resources. This also means that survivors report better outcomes when short-term crisis intervention is followed by long-term services such as a combination of individual counseling and group support work. Sometimes, it also may be beneficial to involve the family in the therapeutic process.
Trauma-informed care for treating sexual assault survivors: Trauma-informed care is a service delivery framework that considers the unique needs of trauma survivors by treatment providers. As part of this approach, important questions, such as how survivors should be treated by clinicians and what clinicians should be aware of when they are the first contact for mental health treatment, are addressed. Trauma-informed care simply adds a context of trauma to whatever theoretical approach and techniques clinicians find appropriate to use in their work with sexual assault survivors. It also brings up critical elements of neuroscience as a background to our clients’ trauma experiences.
Culturally competent counseling: Trauma looks different depending on the culture. In some cultures, women are blamed for being sexually assaulted. They are subsequently stigmatized, isolated and labeled as “damaged goods,” often resulting in them remaining alone for the rest of their lives. In other cultures, laws allow perpetrators of sexual assault to walk free while victims are either banned from the community or suffer severe punishments such as hanging or stoning.
To work effectively with sexual assault survivors in either short-term or long-term settings, it is imperative for counselors to possess strong contextual knowledge of the individual’s cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Such knowledge helps us understand intricate nuances regarding the survivor’s self-perception, self-worth and perception of sexual acts, including those that were not consensual. It also allows for a more open conversation in a safe and nonjudgmental environment so that counselors can better guide survivors through their unique circumstance.
It is our ethical responsibility as counselors to continuously seek more education, awareness and self-growth in relation to culturally responsible and evidence-based counseling services.
Sexaual assault response training for counselors who desire to specialize: In most states, various sexual assault response teams carry out victim advocate trainings. These trainings are typically 40-hour, intensive educational experiences that include interdisciplinary input from experts in various specialty areas. Counselors who are not equipped to work with sexual assault survivors can always find a victim advocate to refer to in the area.
For more information on locating victim advocates in your area, see the National Organization for Victim Assistance website at trynova.org/crime-victim/advocacy/list/.
For more information on victim advocate roles and trainings, see the National Center for Victims of Crime website at victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crime-victims/what-is-a-victim-advocate-.
For hotlines and other helpful links from the National Center for Victims of Crime, see victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/national-hotlines-and-helpful-links.
Hasmik Chakaryan is an assistant professor and director of clinical programs in the Department of Professional Counseling at Webster University. In addition, she is a licensed professional counselor, a clinical supervisor, a victim advocate and a trauma specialist. Her research also focuses on internationalizing the profession of counseling. Contact her at email@example.com.
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