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Massachusetts responds to increased rates of sexual violence

After COVID-19 forced individuals into isolation, the HAVEN program under Massachusetts General Hospital received “triple the normal number of referrals for new patients who need help with abusive relationships.”

Many survivors were dealing with two simultaneous issues — living under the threat of sexual violence and struggling to provide for their immediate needs, such as housing and employment, affected by the pandemic.

“Our goal is to help people be safer,” said Debra Drumm, who directs the Helping Abuse and Violence End Now program. “And many of the folks we work with do not leave their relationships — at least, not immediately.”

Now that life is slowly returning to normal, individuals are seeking continued help from Boston-area organizations, which are tackling the issue in different ways.

In April, the Cambridge Sexual Assault Response Team committed to Start by Believing, an international public awareness campaign launched in 2011 by End Violence Against Women International.

Many survivors of sexual violence do not disclose their experiences for fear of not being believed. The Start by Believing campaign encourages a safe and supportive environment for survivors to disclose their experiences by providing knowledge on how to respond to a survivor.

“As a Start by Believing community, we believe it is vitally important as a city to reaffirm our commitment to survivors of sexual assault and foster the safest and most supportive environment for any survivor,” said Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale. “We want all survivors to feel encouraged to step forward and experience how we are a city that is dedicated to transforming personal and professional responses to sexual assault. That commitment starts with the dedicated members and array of resources within the Cambridge Sexual Assault Response Team.”

According to the YWCA North Shore Rape Crisis Center, nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men have experience some form of sexual violence.

However, sexual violence does not just happen along the binary of genders. According to the UCLA School of Law, transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, another organization committed to serving survivors of sexual violence, had its annual Walk for Change for the first time in nearly three years in April. In 2020 and 2021, the walks were virtual, but this year it returned to Constitution Beach in East Boston.

“The community really showed up. I love(d) how many walking family contingents were there,” U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley tweeted. Pressley has been vocal about being a survivor of sexual violence while a student at Boston University.

According to BU’s 2019 Campus Climate Survey of Sexual Assault and Misconduct, roughly one-third of respondents said they experienced some level of sexual harassment since starting at the university, which has an internal department to address these issues.

The Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center was established in 2012. It focuses on preventing interpersonal violence and professionally responding to trauma survivors to the Boston University community.

“Our counselors are seeing more violent and aggressive experiences with domestic violence and sexual violence” said Ashley Slay, SARP’s assistant director of interpersonal violence. This increase in violent crimes is an effect the pandemic has had on the clients that the in-house counselors see.

SARP provides multiple services to students, including a 24-hour crisis line, accompaniment to legal appointments, and individual and group counseling. The department also provides training to various groups on campus. These trainings cover a range of topics, including healthy dating and active bystandership.

Slay said that since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increase of use of services, which she attributes to the increase of sexual violence and the accessibility of SARP’s telehealth services.

Additionally, Slay said that the conversation around sexual and mental health has become more normalized.

“Anecdotally, I had a student share with me that when they first came to BU seeking help, it just wasn’t something that people did or felt comfortable doing. Then, as time went on, they got more comfortable as more people were talking about mental health and experiences that they had, and getting support,” Slay said.

Over the course of the pandemic, there was a “big reckoning,” as Slay called it, addressing violence on campus. On multiple occasions, students gathered in protest, demanding the administration respond to student’s sexual assault accusations with more transparency and force.

The Daily Free Press, the BU student newspaper, reported that a protest in early 2021 drew an estimated 600 students across campus carrying posters with statements like “BU is complicit” and “Our University has a sexual assault problem.”

Slay said that she is hopeful about the prevention and education around sexual violence, even coming out of the pandemic. This is due in part to new legislation targeted directly to combat this issue.

On January 12, 2021, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new Campus Safety Act aimed at addressing sexual violence on and off college and university campuses. This new act places several obligations on academic institutions, including a requirement to conduct anonymous sexual misconduct campus climate surveys and publish the results.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee is supporting a proposal that would place investments into the state’s services that support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“We know COVID-19 has exacerbated domestic violence in our state,” McKee wrote in a letter to state Sen. Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland. “Investment is needed to support survivors, particularly with housing.”

McKee proposed using $4.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to support these services.

In Massachusetts, there was a push to allocate ARPA funding to support survivors of sexual violence. In a letter to The Patriot Ledger, leaders from various preventive sexual violence centers wrote in support of an amendment by Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro to an ARPA bill that would use funding to “stabilize victim services for survivors of trauma, including sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and homicide.”

Lawmakers ended up making two amendments to the bill. One created the Sustainability of Victim Services Trust Fund. Amounts credited to this fund focused on “the sustainability of victim service programming and supporting victims of crime in the commonwealth.”

The second amendment, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute & Survivor-Led Violence Prevention, stated that $3.5 million shall be allocated to, “address the emergent need for survivors of homicide victims and surviving victims of violent crime for immediate access to emergency housing relocation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.”

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