Volunteers on the front lines helping sex assault victims

Special to the Daily NewsFebruary 26, 2013 

A post-it note on the family phone read, "Crisis line. Do NOT answer."

The warning was meant for Sarah Wood's husband and daughter.

It was February 2005 and Wood, then 24, was minutes away from beginning her first shift on the 24-hour Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) sexual assault crisis line.

For the next seven hours, anyone in Anchorage who dialed 276-RAPE would ring through to Wood's house and speak with the new STAR volunteer. She'd just completed 40 hours of rigorous training in how to communicate in crisis situations with rape victims and their loved ones.

But that night, no one called Wood but Wood.

"I was so nerve-wracked I kept calling the STAR line with my other phone to make sure it was ringing through to my house, then hanging up really quickly so it wouldn't give a busy tone," she recalled.

Since then Wood has lost count of how many crisis calls she's handled. She has eight years on the line, which is unusually long for a STAR volunteer. Incoming crisis line staffers commit to three shifts a month for two years. Fewer than half of every graduating class of trainees lasts for six months.

"If you're not emotionally prepared for what you're going to hear and experience on the line, it'll kick your ass, in a hurry," Wood said.

Last year STAR volunteers took 1,520 crisis-line calls. During a two-week course, they are trained to handle the range of trauma they can expect to encounter.

Those scenarios include:

A woman calls. Two hours ago she was raped. She is injured and terrified.

A man calls. His girlfriend, wife or sister has been sexually assaulted. The caller doesn't understand why the victim won't report the crime to the police, why she didn't fight off the attack, why she is emotionally withdrawing from him. He is enraged and considering doing harm to the rapist, whose identity he knows.

A woman calls in the throes of a panic attack. Years ago she was raped. She's never told anyone of her ordeal and thought she had put it behind her until a scene in a movie triggered a flashback. Now she's re-experiencing the rape, over and over, and is considering suicide.

A mother calls. She just discovered that a man she knows and trusted has been sexually assaulting her children. She is wracked with guilt and wants to know what will happen if she calls the police.

Crisis line volunteers are trained to provide information and help callers understand their options, but not to offer advice or try to convince the caller to report a sexual assault to police.

"When someone's been assaulted they've had their choice taken away from them in fundamental way, so we want to make it perfectly clear to them that what to do next is entirely their choice," said STAR executive director Amanda Price. "We let them know, 'If you want to report (to law enforcement), this is what you can expect. If you don't want to report, that's your right, and that's fine."

STAR volunteers are prohibited by a strict confidentiality policy from discussing the details of any crisis line calls they receive with anyone outside STAR, including spouses, parents and siblings.

"It's a lot to ask of somebody to handle this kind of sensitive, disturbing information on a regular basis, and then tell them, 'Sorry, you can't talk specifics with your loved ones, ever,' " Price said. "I sit on the line myself. I completely understand our attrition rate. I get it. It's tough. But people in the community have to believe the line is 100 percent confidential. Otherwise, they may not pick up the phone, and it may very well be the only call for help they ever make."

The only exceptions to the policy are calls involving child sex abuse. State law requires STAR to report to police the details of any call involving a sexual assault of a minor in which the caller provides the name, address or other information that identifies the victim, whether the victim is the caller or someone the caller knows.

"Often when someone calls the line about a child being harmed, they know the law, and they want to remove the burden of being the one who calls the police," Price said. "They want us to be the one who reports, and we do that for them."

Anchorage Police Department Sgt. Ken McCoy, head of APD's Special Victims Unit, is supportive of STAR's policies on confidentiality and leaving the decision of whether to report a sexual assault entirely up to adult victims who call the crisis line, even if they identify themselves and the rapist.

"I'm fine with more victims reaching out to STAR than reporting to us, because we already know we only deal with a small percentage of the sexual assaults in our community, because far more go unreported. STAR gets the bigger picture, and that's useful," said McCoy, a member of STAR's board of directors. "Some victims don't want the kind of intervention the police provide. They just really want to talk to someone about what has taken place. They want help navigating very difficult circumstances. As law enforcement we investigate, we don't provide emotional support. We just can't. STAR fills that gap, which is huge."

STAR currently has 20 active crisis line volunteers. "Ideally, we'd have 40," Price said. "At 20, we're stretched pretty thin."

Eleven would-be volunteers signed up last fall for the most recent training course. Two of them dropped out on the second day. "Frequently people sign up for the training with the best of intentions, but many times they have their own personal history with sexual assault, and listening to the information, they get triggered, become upset, and realize it's not going to be functional for them," Price said. "That's okay. We'd rather they roll off during training."

The remaining nine individuals graduated and are handling calls. One of them is Cheryl Grove, who moved to Alaska in 1996 and has since worked for social service agencies in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Matanuska Valley. Grove said she was motivated to volunteer in part because of her own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault.

"It happened when I was a child," she said. "I don't want to say much else about it, except that I think that if you're a survivor of sexual assault, and you're in the right place in your healing process, there is a great deal of compassion and understanding and empathy you can bring to the (crisis) line."

Grove started taking calls three shifts a week in November. She took extra shifts throughout December. The holiday season is always a busy one for the line. Now Grove frequently works 5 p.m.-to-10 p.m. shifts, staying late at work to field calls in her office.

She also regularly takes overnight shifts from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Grove lives in Spenard with two housemates. She spends the nights when she's on the line in the house's downstairs common room, catnapping between calls.

"The biggest surprise so far has been the number of male callers," Grove said. "The common theme with most victims is a sense of isolation. When you survive the trauma of a car wreck, generally you have a lot of support around you. But for survivors of sexual assault, for a variety of reasons there's often a profound sense of loneliness. So if I can just simply assure one person a week or a month that he or she is not alone, it makes all the late nights and all the stress totally worth it."

Wood, the eight-year crisis line veteran, no longer has notes taped to her phone. Now she has a STAR-only mobile phone, and when she takes a call at home she goes into her bedroom and closes the door. "My kids know they can't disturb me when mom's on the line," she said. "They know I have to answer, no matter what else is happening in the house."

Before she volunteered for STAR, Wood was vaguely aware of Anchorage, and Alaska on the whole, having one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the U.S.

"Once you work the line, though, once you start hearing the stories, it really hits you just how pervasive a problem rape is in our community, because on the line it's not statistics. It's personal. So now that my eyes are wide open I don't see myself ever quitting. This is my home. I have to do something."

 

The preparation of this story was partially underwritten by the sponsors of the Pick.Click.Give. program, including Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Alaska Children's Trust, Mat-Su Health Foundation and Rasmuson Foundation.

Alaskans helping Alaskans

You can support the work of Standing Together Against Rape with a donation through Pick.Click.Give. Just direct a portion of your Permanent Fund Dividend to it when you apply online. Even if you've already applied, you can go back and add a gift to this or any of the 471 eligible non-profits. You have until March 31. Visit pfd.state.ak.us

Where to turn for help

If you've been a victim of sexual assault, here's how STAR can help:

STAR provides a variety of services for victims of sexual assault, incest or child sexual abuse, whether the assault occurred today or in the distant past. Along with crisis intervention and support, the STAR crisis line offers: answers to questions about recovering from sexual assault; information about medical issues; explanations of the criminal justice system; and what to expect if you report the crime and information for family and friends of victims. In Anchorage call 276-RAPE (7273). The statewide toll-free number is 1-800-478-8999.

STAR also provides legal advocacy services for issues such as protective orders and referrals for help with family law matters, and offers ongoing support services for victims of sexual assault, including one-on-one advocacy sessions and referrals to support services, including counseling, statewide. All services are free and confidential.

For more information, call the crisis line or the STAR business line at 1-907-276-7279

How to volunteer at STAR

What to do if you're interested in becoming a crisis line volunteer:

Crisis line training is offered twice a year, free of charge, to adults 18 and older with no violent criminal history. A one-year commitment of three shifts a month is required as well as access to the internet and email. Orientation nights for prospective trainees will be April 5 and 12, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.staralaska.com or call the STAR business line at 1-907-276-7279.

 

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