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Tucson groups join forces to support sex assault survivors, promote awareness
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Tucson groups join forces to support sex assault survivors, promote awareness

With in-person outreach and events still not an option, several community partners have teamed up for a monthlong campaign of support and education for survivors of sexual assault across Pima County.

As an increased number of students return to campus and in-person learning and many bars and restaurants reopen amid lifting pandemic restrictions, the timing of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month is especially important, said Stephanie Noriega, interim director of the University of Arizona’s Survivor Advocacy Program.

But as the pandemic creeps towards an end, Noriega and partner organizations had to get creative to get the message out, on campus and beyond.

“Looking at where we were at, we couldn’t do tabling on the mall or anything like that,” Noriega said. “A lot of national organizations are already pulling together toolkits to do social media campaigns and awareness activities and engagement, so it seemed feasible to really just take what worked and alter it.”

Noriega and her colleague in the advocacy program, Brenda Anderson Wadley, worked together with the UA’s Consortium on Gender-Based Violence to put together a toolkit that was applicable to UA community and beyond, and the end result is a literal calendar full of virtual events in April, posted to the survivor advocacy website. Many are happening on social media and some are as simple as posting a statistic, sharing a relevant account or explaining the term “consent” as it relates to sexual violence.

But there are also virtual trainings and panels in conjunction with the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault (SACASA,) Take Back the Night Tucson, and other local agencies and community groups.

These are especially important as campus reentry progresses, as the survivor advocacy program hasn’t been able to do outreach to the extent they’d like during the past six months.

The program is wrapping up its third academic year, and Noriega said that by spring 2020, as their second year came to a close, they’d really gotten into a good stride when it came to providing survivor services, as well as student, advisor and faculty outreach. Then the pandemic hit.

“Since the university closed down last March, we just did a pivot and slowed our pace down, knowing we knew we were in it for the long haul,” Noriega said. “We have made top priority to not disrupt our availability to students.”

Noriega said they “never skipped a beat,” transitioning to virtual office hours and Zoom appointments, and staying in close contact with referring partners on campus.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is refusing to detail how his office is protecting two current aides who claim that he sexually harassed or assaulted them in the past year.

Training and presentations have been scant, as Noriega and others have had to prioritize their time and not take on too much.

“Anecdotally, it still felt like people were still coming. It still felt like we were still seeing folks,” Noriega said. “Oftentimes, it was people who did go back home. But we had folks engaged regardless of where they were at.”

Noriega said she found herself googling state coalitions and resources in other cities on a regular basis. She called the caseload this past year a “mixed bag,” saying she and the program’s other advocate heard from students that began to process abuse that had happened more than a year prior, and spoke to others that were experiencing domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, as activity on campus ground to a halt.

“We’re still 100% here and ready to support (survivors,) despite COVID or being away from campus,” Noriega said. “We don’t ever want folks to feel hesitant to reach out. We always put the needs of survivors and students at the center.”

When it comes to this year’s alternative awareness campaign, Noriega said it came down to having their hands in several pots, but being careful to not take everything on by themselves.

“Where is the work happening and where can we link up so it can be a collective effort and it doesn’t fall on anyone, has kind of been my approach,” Noriega said.

In the end, they partnered with the consortium and other local agencies to plan events, many that have a focus on the campus community. Others have a larger reach, like April 28th’s Denim Day, an international effort to end victim-blaming, in which community members are encouraged to wear denim or a teal shirt in solidarity with survivors. Several Pima County groups are participating in the effort, and UA students are encouraged to use the hashtag, #UADenimDay and tag campus partners in their photos, Noriega said.

“I feel really proud and happy that there’s been so much collaboration and that it really does feel like a citywide effort,” Noriega said. “Sometimes I know we can get really busy and get in our silos, but this time around, it was almost like we’re all still surviving the pandemic, we’re service providers, we’re overworked. So there was this very natural sentiment that we had to do something, so let’s almost like combine our powers.”

“It’s so much better for survivors”

Officials with SACASA were still more than happy to partner up with the UA’s campus groups, Take Back the Night Tucson and county and city agencies to get the word out about the campaign. Due to the pandemic, SACASA has been unable to hold its annual “Dine Out for Safety” campaign the past two years.

And while initial numbers suggest that sexual assault might have gone down in Pima County amid the pandemic, it’s still important to get spread awareness to the problem, said SACASA’s Kristine Welter-Hall.

Advocates responding to hospitals at the request of survivors decreased 13% and medical forensic exam requests decreased 29% from July through December 2020, when compared to the same time the previous year, according to Welter-Hall.

Still, SACASA’s crisis advocates responded to hospitals 419 times in 2020, and medical forensic exams were provided in 50% of those situations, demonstrating a continued need for services and outreach, even amidst the pandemic, Welter-Hall said.

SACASA closed its office to walk-ins at the beginning and peak of the pandemic and switched to conducting their non-hospital based advocacy on the phone or via Zoom.

“At the beginning when things were pretty heightened, we’re able to work with TMC to have a tablet in the ER and do some initial Zoom talking with survivors to work through with them what their rights are, listen, support, and let them know the next steps,” Welter-Hall said. “If they decided they wanted a medical forensic exam, advocates would present to hospital and be there in-person to support them.”

That didn’t last long.

“Our advocates asked if they could just get back on site,” Welter-Hall said. “It’s so much better for survivors.”

The advocates got their wish, and everything has been business as usual — with the addition of PPE and social distancing — for a while now.

Welter-Hall thinks the drop in services requested is due to a variety of factors, including less acquaintance rapes in early months, with fewer people going out. She also said that they’d heard from police at the peak of Pima County’s caseload that some people did not want to go to the hospital.

They also saw a 55% to 45% drop in survivors who received medical forensic exams during that July through December time period, which could be due to people wanting to spend as little time in the hospital as possible, and not go through a lengthy exam.

“We did our best to educate folks and assure them that we were taking all COVID precautions,” Welter-Hall said.

While services provided changed over the past year, community partners’ commitment to SACASA’s Sexual Assault Response Team did not. Representatives from law enforcement, attorneys, youth groups, the UA, military, consulate and more all met several times a month .

Welter-Hall said that SACASA is especially mindful that April can be an especially triggering month for survivors, with the enhanced public focus on sexual assault awareness and services. In addition to advocates’ usual 24/7 availability, SACASA is expanding its therapy groups for survivors from two to four this month.

“We’re here all the time to listen and provide immediate coping skills with any triggers and trauma, and connect with ongoing services at SACASA and services within the community that may be beneficial to healing,” Welter-Hall said. “Our advocates provide ongoing advocacy, whether the assault occurred in childhood or just occurred, and we’re also here to support loved ones and family members of sexual assault.”

In addition to SACASA and the UA groups, a handful of other agencies are participating in a social media campaign, using the hashtag #TucSAAM. Throughout the month, social media accounts from the Pima County Attorney’s Office, Tucson Police Department, Pima County Sheriff’s Department and Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center have been sharing statistics, links to services and other related content on their various channels.

“Silence allows sexual violence to grow”

The county attorney’s victim services division took a major role in the planning of this month’s activities, thanks in part to funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant. The grant is meant to address untested sexual assault kits in law enforcement custody and help victims obtain a resolution.

The SAKI grant also allots funding for advocacy and education, part of which has been used for a PSA to alert survivors of the person to talk to — Victim Advocate Colleen Phelan — if they have questions about their rape kits.

The PSA is launching soon, and will provide survivors with Phelan’s direct phone number, so they’ll know in advance who they’re talking to. That’s important, Phelan said, because “this is personal.”

COVID has dampened the office’s ability to do outreach in these types of cases to the extent they’d like, so the PSA was a way to reach a larger audience. The grant gave the office the push they needed to pull together a whole month of outreach to reach that same larger audience.

“Sexual Assault Awareness Month has never been quite as comprehensive as Domestic Violence Awareness Month,” Phelan said. “There’s been less comfort in general with sharing quite the same way.”

Representatives from victim services met with people from other groups to talk about making this year’s event a bigger deal, pulling in agencies along the way to ensure that they were addressing current issues and raising awareness of how to prevent sexual violence, Phelan said.

“We always need have conversations about consent,” Phelan said. “Silence allows sexual violence to grow. So the more we talk about it and the more the conversation grows, the more we can start tackling why we live in a rape tolerant culture.”

The planning for this year’s events was done with the focus of making 2022 even bigger and getting even more people involved, Phelan said, adding that it makes sense to pull together all of the groups who work together to assist survivors.

“We’re creating that path to healing. There’s not one thing, there’s a whole variety of options. That makes much more fruitful experience for survivors,” Phelan said.

With the circumstances of the pandemic, it may have been harder for survivors to seek services, Phelan said.

“Dealing with a sexual assault can be a luxury in some ways sometimes,” Phelan said. “If you’re just trying to put food on the table, that can’t be compromised by going to therapy, say. That’s something some people just don’t have the bandwidth for right now.”

Phelan said that with so many people in survival mode, she believes there will be a rush for services when the world returns to a more normal state. That’s one of the reason outreach and advocacy are so important: So survivors will know where to turn to when they’re ready for support.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at or 573-4191.

Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

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Information about SACASA's expanded options for sexual assault therapy and support groups.

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