Advocates work to improve sexual assault resources

Elea Levin









Illustration by Shannon McManus

Surviving a sexual assault is one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through. Going through the process of seeking support after can be even harder.

Survivors of sexual assault in Wisconsin not only face barriers to accessing the appropriate resources and services they need, but are often kept in the dark about where to find help, what options are available and how a sense of healing or justice can be achieved. Now, organizations across Wisconsin are working to secure more funding for resources, expand options for survivors and streamline the process of finding assistance.

“We’ve always said we were survivor-centered and survivor-focused, and then we only gave survivors certain options,” says Kelly Moe Litke, associate director for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault in Madison. “We only gave them part of the menu instead of the whole menu.”

An important part of this shift for many agencies is devoting more resources and attention to transformative justice. This can encompass all forms of justice for survivors that operate outside the criminal justice system.

“We’re really missing opportunities for community accountability and transformative justice,” says Nola Pastor, a violence prevention specialist at UW–Madison’s University Health Services

Transformative justice can be a particularly important option for people from marginalized communities who historically had more negative experiences with the legal system. While there isn’t a formal definition for what this process involves, one option for informal resolution at UW–Madison is for the survivor to request that a staff member issue a reminder to the individual who harmed them about campus policies regarding sexual misconduct.

Other survivors, however, may want to pursue a legal route. Social justice movements that have gained national attention in recent years have inspired some survivors to report their assaults and to determine how they want to move forward on their own terms.

“The discussions around the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as a reevaluation of the criminal justice system, has shifted the way survivors engage with it,” says Rachel Sattler, co-founder of Dane County Multi-Agency Center and a victims’ rights attorney.

“Now they want autonomy,” Sattler says. “They want an independent understanding of what their rights are, and they want an independent ability to raise their voice within the system.”

One of the main barriers that some survivors face when seeking help after a sexual assault — whether they are interested in pursuing legal options or not — is a lack of understanding about what resources exist.

“I can tell you that when someone opens their mouth, has the courage to schedule that appointment and actually walks through that door, there’s no way I can get them to go anywhere else.”

— Kim Curran

When Racine resident Christina Trinidad, 32, was sexually assaulted at age 13, she wasn’t aware that resources and options for sexual assault survivors were available. It wasn’t until she was nearly 17 that she connected with BeLEAF Survivors (previously Sexual Assault Services of Racine) and began to receive counseling.

Trinidad said she might have come forward about her assault earlier if she knew what kinds of resources existed for survivors. She believes that advertising these resources broadly in places like schools and grocery stores could help spread awareness about services and options.

In addition, she thinks the process to find help could be made simpler to ease the burden on survivors.

“It’s a lot on your shoulders as a victim,” Trinidad says. “That trauma should never be on them to try to go out and try to find help. The help should be right there in front of their face.”

Sattler and co-founder Kim Curran were inspired to establish the Dane County Multi-Agency Center to help address this problem and take a more victim-centered approach to sexual violence. The purpose of a multi-agency model is that it collects and provides all the options for action and resources following a sexual assault in one place, which can help ease the burden on the survivor.

“I can tell you that when someone opens their mouth, has the courage to schedule that appointment and actually walks through that door, there’s no way I can get them to go anywhere else,” Curran says.

To help combat the issue of survivor services being so decentralized, Kate Walsh, a professor in the gender and women’s studies and psychology departments at UW–Madison partnered with Dane County Multi-Agency Center after receiving a grant from the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime in Wisconsin. With this grant, Dane County Multi-Agency Center was able to bring forensic nurse exams — a physical assessment performed by a health care professional following a sexual assault — to University Health Services at UW–Madison in July 2021.

Previously, Meriter Hospital was the only location in all of Dane County to offer forensic nurse exams. Having these exams available at University Health Services for students and staff eliminates the extra step of traveling to a hospital.

The exam is survivor-centered, and individuals can opt out of any part of the exam. It can involve solely a physical examination and treatment of injuries or the collection of forensic evidence. Depending on the individual’s needs, it may include a wellness consultation and discussion of mental health resources and a safety plan. Nurses may also provide testing for sexually transmitted infections and emergency contraception if necessary.

“I think that by providing more options to students, some students who may not have even realized that they have the option of reporting, may now have a sense of, ‘I have a choice whether I want to report this or not,’” Walsh says.

One student wrote in an anonymous survey that she was very thankful that she had access to the forensic nurse exam program at University Health Services. The student stated “I’m so glad I came in, it was great to be able to do everything in one spot and on the same day. I’m so thankful you were here,” Curran says.

“It took me a long time to change my whole persona about my life and what happened to me, I fought so hard. I’m no longer the victim, I’m a survivor.”

— Christina Trinidad

Though movements like #MeToo have brought greater national attention to the issue of sexual assault, the biggest barrier that many organizations continue to face is a lack of funding. 

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years,” Litke says. “I feel like something’s different, but funding’s not different.” 

While funding for resources of any kind for sexual assault survivors is fairly low, the biggest gaps are in funding for programs led by people of color that specifically support survivors of marginalized identities. 

“They’re doing this work because the community needs it,” Litke says.

In 2020, Wisconsin saw a rate of 76.15 sex offenses per 100,000 residents, but the numbers are likely higher in reality given that sex crimes are underreported. These high rates, along with low funding, make it difficult for organizations to prioritize prevention programs.

“I think it’s really easy for organizations doing this work to fall into a scarcity mentality,” Pastor says. “We never have enough time, we never have enough people or resources.” 

Lack of funding is also what has prevented the Dane County Multi-Agency Center from launching its newest idea: an app that would put resources for survivors in one place. The app would limit the amount of times a survivor needs to recount their trauma while seeking help, a process that can be highly painful.

The app would incorporate everything from mental and physical health care to resources on how to go about reporting an assault to the police. It would also guide survivors directly to in-person services if needed.

Equally important to establishing resources is opening avenues for survivors to be aware of and access these resources in a centralized place. The last thing that someone who just experienced a sexual assault wants to do is to relive their trauma over and over again by spending hours retelling their story, looking up resources or being questioned by strangers.

“Just creating new support is not going to help survivors effectively unless they know about those services and they can easily get to them,” Sattler says. “More and more and more doesn’t always mean better unless there’s a way to connect everything in a way that makes sense.” 

While the healing process can vary greatly from person to person, for Trinidad, attending support groups and hearing from other survivors was extremely powerful. She was also inspired to get help for her mental health after having her first daughter, and she is now a mother of four.

Trinidad is taking classes online and hopes to become a crisis counselor to help other survivors after finishing her degree.

“It took me a long time to change my whole persona about my life and what happened to me,” Trinidad says.  “I fought so hard. I’m no longer the victim, I’m a survivor.”

If you are being sexually abused or are in need of resources following a sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or visit www.rainn.org/resources