April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month. A year has passed since COVID-19 forced Yolo County and most of the nation into quarantine. Throughout that time, Empower Yolo continued to support survivors of sexual assault amidst the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.  As our community begins to move from the darkness of the pandemic into the light of a new beginning we are mindful of the trauma and additional hardships survivors of sexual abuse have endured during this time.

In the U.S., every 73 seconds a person is sexually assaulted; and every 9 minutes, that victim is a child according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network website.

This past year, Empower Yolo modified its services to better support sexual assault survivors. Empower Yolo’s Concerned Advocates Responding to Emergencies (CARE) team advocates continued to support and empower sexual assault and human trafficking survivors by providing accompaniment and advocacy during law enforcement investigations. “Empower Yolo has continued to respond in person to law enforcement interviews, child forensic interviews, and emergency departments to support survivors; face masks, social distancing and other safety measures are followed according to County guidelines,” says Celina Alveraz, Associate Director, Empower Yolo.

In 2020, Empower Yolo advocates served 119 sexual assault survivors, 60 were children. Empower Yolo’s essential services remained open throughout the pandemic to support survivors and families in need.

Empower Yolo continues to provide survivors of sexual assault a place to turn to in their moment of crisis. The CARE team is comprised of certified peer counselors and all communication between the survivor and advocate is privileged communication.  Our advocates are prepared to act during emergencies. They respond 24-hours a day and seven days a week to hospitals, police departments, forensic interviews and forensic medical exams; they provide crisis intervention, peer counseling, resources, referrals, and emotional support to survivors and their families.

“As cases surged in Yolo and Sacramento County, CARE advocates were restricted from responding in-person to sexual assault forensic exams. Survivors were given the option to check in with an advocate before the exam to receive support, explain the process, understand their rights and learn about Empower Yolo’s free, safe and confidential services. Survivors were also given the option to check out with the advocate after the exam to debrief the process and talk about next steps. Many survivors opted out of receiving this support, as forensic exams are very personal and intimate medical exams, which many just want to get through as quickly as possible,” says Alveraz.

Over the past year, there have been many challenges sexual assault survivors have had to overcome to get support and services because of COVID-19.

In addition to the loss of support during forensic medical exams, survivors saw an increase in judgment as a result of their victimization. “Rape culture continues to place blame on the victims instead of those who cause harm. Survivors are already heavily stigmatized and blamed for their assaults; we have all heard the common messages of “what were you doing there?” “what were you wearing?” Now, as a result of the pandemic, survivors receive additional negative feedback such as, “why were you out anyway?” “aren’t you supposed to be staying home?” Court systems slowed down causing a delay in cases moving forward. Many partner organizations had shut down in-person services making it difficult for clients to receive support; thankfully, Empower Yolo has remained open and expanded services to support those impacted by Covid-19. Empower Yolo’s therapy services shifted to virtual and expanded to include a self-care support group, and “Thriving Teens” a support group for teens that have experienced sexual abuse,” says Alveraz.  A new session of Thriving Teens will be starting up again in mid May.  For more information about the group call the main office at (530) 661-3661.

In addition to the CARE team, Empower Yolo is still providing essential services at the main office in Woodland, the West Sacramento Office, and the Resource Centers in Davis and Knights Landing.  Services include: restraining order assistance, family legal clinic, food distribution, emergency clothing and hygiene products, resources and referrals. Phone and video services are also available for therapy and case management. Additionally, the 24-hour support line is always available at (530) 662-1133. Beginning in April our new office hours are the following: Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Empower Yolo also supports child sexual assault survivors.  Empower Yolo is an authorized facilitator of Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children, a child sexual abuse prevention program. The flagship program teaches adults how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. Additional training is available that is designed to provide more in-depth information and skill development in topic areas addressed in Stewards of Children®, including but not limited to other forms of abuse, mandated reporting, and human trafficking. Workshops are facilitated free of charge, however there is a $10 fee for the required workbook.

There are still many concerns for victims of abuse right now.  “Survivors continue to be marginalized and blamed for their abuse. Reaching out for support has already been difficult, but throwing in loss of job, increased isolation, and housing insecurity has only amplified the need for organizations like Empower Yolo. Clients who face additional barriers, such as lack of language access, job insecurity, or fear of deportation find it exceptionally difficult to reach out for help,” says Alveraz. Empower Yolo provides services to all survivors and does not discriminate based on age, race, color, gender, religion, national origin, marital status, ancestry, citizenship, immigration status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental disability.

Additional resources include the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB), which can pay for out of pocket expenses related to the crime such as counseling, medical bills, home security improvements, relocation and more. Assistance filling out these applications can be found at any of Empower Yolo’s resource centers or the Victim Services Unit at the District Attorney’s Office, (530) 666-8187. UC Davis students, staff and faculty may also utilize the Center for Advocacy Resources and Education located on both the Davis and Sacramento campuses. For information or to make an appointment, call (530) 752-3299 (Davis campus); (916) 734-3799 (UC Davis Health); or email [email protected]. The Yolo County Child Abuse Prevention Council is also launching its new website at: www.strongfamiliesyolo.org/.

As we shift from the darkness of the pandemic into the light, be mindful that many survivors of sexual abuse need additional support. There are many opportunities to make an impact. Our community call to action to support survivors of sexual assault this month is the following: 1) support sexual abuse programs any time at empoweryolo.org; 2) make an in kind donation during the month long “Shower for the Shelter” donation drive to support our emergency shelter, organized by the “Friends of Empower Yolo”; for more information about the shower and items needed for the shelter visit: empoweryolo.org; 3) thank you to our awareness month sponsor, UC Davis Women’s Law Association (WLA); participate in the WLA and If/When/How UC Davis Law’s “[Em]power Walk Yolo”, a virtual walk/run fundraising event April 3-11 benefiting Empower Yolo; to register go to: https://forms.gle/XSdoFUhCuBvbjtkU8; for more information visit: empoweryolo.org; 4) set up a virtual or socially distant “Stewards of Children” workshop; 5) follow our awareness efforts this month on social media on Facebook @empoweryolo, Instagram & Twitter @empower_yolo; 6) give support to sexual assault survivors and many other clients in need on Big Day of Giving, May 6; double your impact – we have $12,000 in matching funds! Early giving begins April 22 at: https://www.bigdayofgiving.org/organization/empoweryolo.

Help us continue to support sexual assault survivors this month. Together, we can strengthen our safety net throughout the county to better support survivors and families in need, to connect them with resources to keep them safe, healthy and resilient, and to help raise up our entire community from the darkness into the light.

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