Victims’ advocates working for an Anniston-based nonprofit have heard 71 cases of sexual assault or rape so far this year.
“That’s on the high end for us,” Starla Burnham, lead victims’ advocate for 2nd Chance, said Saturday. The nonprofit serves those who’ve suffered either domestic or sexual abuse in Calhoun County and six surrounding counties — and often, Burnham said, the two forms of violence are seen together.
For most who suffer either, Burnham and other advocates said, reporting a rape or sexual assault is a humiliation that follows a trauma that leaves lasting psychological wounds. If a survivor chooses to pursue criminal charges against his or her attacker — state law gives victims over the age of 18 the choice of reporting a rape to police — they’ll need the forensic evidence that a rape kit can provide — bodily fluids and DNA.
On Saturday afternoon, local nurses and victims’ advocates working with the nonprofit gathered in an auditorium inside RMC in Anniston, where one of the state’s first nurses trained in international standards for forensic exams offered training on how to administer them.
Valtoria Jackson also spoke on the importance of involving local advocates such as Burnham, who can help the victims of rape and sexual assault begin to heal psychologically, rather than police. That step ought to be left up to the survivor, she said.
“We want them to get mental health assistance,” Jackson told those who’d come to the training session. “Make sure you have an advocate. That’s when the healing begins.”
2nd Chance employs several like Burnham, people trained to offer survivors of sexual assault guidance and comfort during forensic exams, often done in hospitals.
Most of the calls 2nd Chance get come from emergency room nurses, Burnham said, working in Gadsden, Anniston or Jacksonville.
The exam that follows comes out of a rectangular box, as Jackson would teach during her training session Saturday, a little wider and a little bit more shallow than a shoebox.
Any medical professional licensed in Alabama can give the exams by following the 13 steps set out on a form inside the box, Jackson said.
Without taking the time to develop a rapport with the victim, though, the exams can be cold and clinical — a sometimes hours-long process of questioning, swabbing and swiping.
Anastasia Boody, an emergency room nurse working at RMC who attended the training, called the exams intrusive. Victims of rape or sexual assault often have to begin the exams by surmounting a daunting obstacle — talking about what happened to them to nurses and doctors.
Boody said she and other nurses working at the hospital know to call for a victims’ advocate from 2nd Chance whenever a survivor of rape or sexual assault seeks medical treatment.
She’d gone to the training because she wanted to make sure she was giving the exams correctly.
“That’s somebody’s life in that box,” she said. “We’re collecting evidence that could put away someone who hurt them ... I just wanted to make sure I’m doing it correctly.”
While 2nd Chance employs advocates like Burnham, it also relies heavily on volunteers, she said Saturday, local people who are trained on how to provide assistance to victims and go on call for 24 hours at a time.
Many of the volunteers the nonprofit has now have been so for years, Burnham said. New volunteers recently completed training, but 2nd Chance always seeks more.
Being such a volunteer can mean a serious commitment of time and emotional bandwidth, Burnham said.
“It can make a huge difference in the entire process,” though, she said. “You have someone there, just for them ... someone who doesn’t blame you.”
The advocacy the nonprofit offers continues after that initial exam, Burnham said. 2nd Chance’s advocates and staff offer one-on-one counseling and a support group. Advocates will go to the police station with a survivor who wants to report their rape or sexual assault, and will also go into court when the case makes it there — all for free.
The number of rapes and sexual assaults seen by the nonprofit this year might be alarming, Burnham said, but she sees a silver lining.
“It means people are reaching out, and getting the help they need.”