Ed’s Note: The experiences of Jane Doe in the following story represent a number of cases and victims reviewed by Capitol Weekly. This report is the second in a series.
At 10 p.m., Jane Doe is sexually assaulted in Springville, a small town of 1,100 in Tulare County, forty-five miles west of Visalia, at the edge of Sequoia National Forest.
After a night working through shock and trying to process what happened, Jane calls the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, who dispatch an officer from Porterville. It is 10 a.m. The officer arrives 30 minutes later. While taking Jane’s initial report, the officer asks if she would like medical assistance. The answer is “Yes.”
There is one hospital in Tulare Country that tends to survivors of sexual assault. It is in Visalia. The hospital does not have a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) nurse on staff, so a call must be made to an agency which provides them.
Whatever the survivor tells the counselor or whatever the counselor observes is confidential.
The officer also informs Jane that she has the right to be assisted by a rape crisis counselor. She says that she would like to have one. He calls the rape crisis hotline run by Family Services of Tulare County (FSTC), the non-profit agency which runs Tulare County’s sole rape crisis center. Family Services contacts an on-call volunteer, who, by law, has ten minutes to respond to the call. The volunteer lives in Dinuba, thirty-minutes north of Visalia.
It is an hour drive from Springville to Visalia, time enough for both the nurse and the crisis counselor to meet Jane and the officer at the hospital. After the drive, Jane arrives at the emergency room. She is registered and settled in. The SART the nurse starts an examination and runs some tests, a process that can take over an hour. A detective from the sheriff’s office has arrived to take Jane’s full statement.
The rape crisis counselor is present during the tests, exams, and the detective’s interview. The counselor is there for support, as well as to help navigate Jane through the process and answer whatever questions she has. Whatever the survivor tells the counselor or whatever the counselor observes is confidential.
The counselor can help Jane get back home and settled. If her home is no longer safe or Springville is too uncomfortable for her, the councilor will help Jane find a place to stay — either in a shelter, a motel room, or with family or friends. If Jane needs to be driven somewhere after the hospital visit, the counselor will get her there. If Jane needs to stay at the hospital to deal with an injury that resulted from the assault – internal bleeding, broken bones, a concussion – the counselor will stay with her.
The relationship can last months, years, and even decades, and is not predicated on anything other than the survivor’s needs
It’s been 18 hours since Jane was sexually assaulted and taken to Visalia for treatment. She is back home in Springville now, but her ordeal is far from over.
A rape crisis advocate from Family Services calls her. The advocate is a paid employee of Family Services, trained to assist sexual assault survivors for however long they need help. Sometimes the survivor decides she doesn’t want any help. Refusing help does not prohibit a survivor from obtaining assistance from a rape crisis center or advocate in the future. A survivor is also not obligated to press charges or testify at a trial in order to get help from a rape crisis center. Nor is a survivor charged for any of the services a crisis center or its counselors and advocates provide.
One of the most important things that the crisis center and its advocate provides Jane is stability.
Every attempt is made by the center to provide continuity of services to a survivor, which means assigning one advocate to assist a survivor with things such as going to court, obtaining legal counsel, finding therapy, going to medical appointments, securing safe housing, talking through problems, and just being there. The relationship can last months, years, and even decades, and is not predicated on anything other than the survivor’s needs. The service is free of charge.
While the rape crisis advocate tries to make things as easy as possible for a survivor, nothing can be done about the logistics or nature of rural living. Jane will still have to deal with long travel times to work with a therapist and to attend to with medical issues resulting from the assault. She will have to travel to Visalia to see the district attorney and go to court dates.
Family Services of Tulare County’s rape crisis counselors are unpaid volunteers, first responders, without whom Family Services would be unable to operate its 24-7 hotline
The insularity of rural life and the tight network of those who live in small towns will still be there to navigate. If the perpetrator still lives in or is related to people who live in the community, Jane will have to deal with that threat and the stress that come with it.
A current event involving sexual assault– such as the U.S. Senate hearings into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh or the case of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein – can trigger past trauma. While the rape crisis advocate cannot prevent these things from happening, she will help Jane navigate these situations.
If the victim of sexual assault is a child, all of these challenges are compounded. The only children’s hospital that serves assault survivors is in the next county, in Madera, an hour-and-a-half north of Visalia. Now, the county child welfare agency and even family court are engaged. If the child was assaulted by kin, the difficulties multiply both for the child and the crisis advocate.
Family Services of Tulare County’s rape crisis counselors are unpaid volunteers, first responders, without whom Family Services would be unable to operate its 24-7 hotline, as required by the state. Without the hotline, they cannot operate a rape crisis center.
Though volunteer rape crisis counselors are unpaid, they are required by the state to undergo 40-hours of training. FSTC requires an additional eight hours a year of continuing education (other centers ask for more). Once one becomes a volunteer crisis counselor, FSTC needs a commitment of 36-hours per month, including nights, weekends and holidays. The volunteer must have reliable transportation and live in the county. FSTC currently has “25 active volunteers supporting [the] Rape Crisis program.”
After the initial work done by the crisis counselor, a rape crisis advocate takes over.
Rape crisis advocates must also undergo training, however, and because they are case-management workers, their schooling is much more extensive. Advocates are “typically recent bachelor’s level graduates with perhaps some experience in human services,” something which is not common in Tulare County.
Lake County has long had one of the highest number of rapes per capita in the state, it lacks the resources to easily assist those impacted by sexual assault.
According to Caity Meader, Family Services’ CEO, because their advocates are highly trained workers with college degrees, FSTC’s advocates could make more in another field or some other job markets, but stay with FSTC “because they care about working with survivors.”
FSTC employs several rape crisis advocates, with other staff doubling their duties with advocate work. The pay range for an advocate is $15.39 to $20.31 per hour. Meader tries to make up for the advocates’ sacrifice by offering “medical benefits and the like,” but “it definitely isn’t made easy when our funding is so restricted and also reduced without warning.” She notes that increases in the state’s minimum wage compacts FSTC’s budget, while acknowledging that California’s “general cost of living” keeps rising and her “staff, many of them parents with young children, has to absorb that, too.”
Lake County has similar challenges, as well a few that are unique. While the county has long had one of the highest number of rapes per capita in the state, it lacks the resources to easily assist those impacted by sexual assault. The Lake Family Resource Center (LFRC) employs three rape crisis advocates, who also double as crisis counselors. Advocate pay starts at $14 per hour, a wage competitive with what is offered in surrounding counties, but not high enough to keep up with rises in the cost of housing.
While all of California struggles with housing, Lake County’s affordable housing shortage is compounded by wildfires. In the last four years, nearly 25% of Lake County has burned, taking with it 1,860 houses. Also lost due to the fire, an unknown number of jobs in agriculture and tourism.
While Lake County’s unemployment rate is near the state average, it has lost population since the wildfires. Lake’s median household income of $40,446 is well below the state’s $71,805. Lake is the poorest of California’s counties. The county’s low wages hurt LFRC’s ability to recruit unpaid volunteers.
Sheri Young, LFRC’s Director of Programs, explains that many people who would like to volunteer are looking to piece together enough paid work to get by and those who have a steady income are not likely to volunteer “after working 8 hours a day.” Young adds that those who do have the ability to volunteer “are putting time and resources into fire and disaster relief.” Currently, LFRC has one volunteer rape crisis councilor.
Some in wealthier and urban counties were able to access other resources.
When state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Assemblymember Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) were able to convince then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature to increase the general fund contribution to rape crisis centers from $45,000 a year to $5 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, program directors such as LFRC’s Sheri Young, FSTC’s Caity Meader and May Rico of Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus were thrilled that were able to increase services, especially in education and training.
They were looking forward to providing more resources for their volunteers, increasing their workers’ pay and hiring more staff.
Rico’s big wish was to be able to hire an advocate-counselor who would be able to respond “around the clock … the faster we can get there and meet the client, start to build rapport and be there while law enforcement is still there, so we can hear what happened and start to figure out what the safety needs might be for the person without having to ask them to repeat things [the better it is for the survivor].”
These dreams were dashed when the governor’s office and the Legislature decided not to continue the $5 million general fund contribution to rape crisis centers, dropping it back down to $45,000, with the state Office of Emergency Services sending all of the allocation to one Alameda County rape crisis program.
Informed of the drop in funding (but not why it happened), the state’s 84 rape crisis programs scrambled to keep their budgets in order.
Some in wealthier and urban counties were able to access other resources. In San Francisco, SF Women Against Rape (SFWAR) tapped into funding they receive from the city’s Commission on the Status of Women, as well as the city’s philanthropic community. YWCA-Silicon Valley (YWCA-SV) got a promise of a $503,000 grant from Santa Clara County. They also increased fund-raising efforts.
“All of us are experiencing significant demands in service with funding that has not kept up.” — Tanis Crosby
Urban rape crisis program’s access to more financial resources from localities and philanthropists is balanced by what YWCA-SV’s Tanis Crosby says is “significant compounding demand.”
In 2018, San Jose Inside reported that from 2007 to 2017, San Jose had seen a 263% increase in reported rapes. According to data provided by the FBI, the increase in reported rapes for Santa Clara county is lower than San Jose’s. From 2014 to 2018, Santa Clara County saw an 80% increase.
Other urban-dominated counties saw similar hikes: Los Angeles, 102%; San Bernardino, 98%; Alameda, 91%; and Fresno, 91%. While 102% and 80% is certainly lower than San Jose’s 263%, the percentage increases are still high, especially considering that most crimes in California are seeing a decline in reporting.
YWCA-SV’s Crosby says that while urban and rural areas face different challenges and access to resources, “all of us are experiencing significant demands in service with funding that has not kept up.”
She adds: “I hope the state takes its role very seriously and understands that this needs to be appropriately resourced from end to end to end in this state, and resourced equitably, so if you happen to be a survivor in an urban area you don’t get better service just because your local rape crisis center is able to access more philanthropic resources.”