As members of Congress resume work following the July 4 recess to consider the next COVID-19 relief package, it’s critical that they remember the 1,500 rape crisis centers, sexual assault programs and culturally specific programs that are the front-line response for sexual violence survivors in their communities day in and day out.
The funding needs of sexual assault service providers have never been greater or more urgent. Before the pandemic, half of local sexual assault programs already had a waiting list for counseling services. According to a recent National Alliance to End Sexual Violence survey of the nation’s local sexual assault programs, 40 percent have seen an increased demand for services during the pandemic and an overwhelming majority – 89 percent – need additional funding in order to provide survivors support and emergency assistance such as food, rental assistance and pre-paid cellphones, internet and other technology so that they can access confidential and virtual services.
It’s important to remember that while many of us are socially distancing from home, home may not be a safe or comfortable environment for survivors. Perpetrators are taking advantage of increased vulnerability and decreased visibility at this time with victims who are disconnected from their regular activities and support networks such as work, school, places of worship and community groups. In some cases, perpetrators are landlords or employers who threaten eviction or termination, leveraging desperation to sexually extort victims. These factors compounded with the stress and anxiety from a global health crisis are inflicting even more trauma and pain for survivors.
While many local sexual violence programs are ready and trained to help survivors through these unprecedented challenges, the pandemic has made what was already a difficult process even harder. With staff and funding already stretched too thin, advocates are scrambling to access the technology and resources needed to offer critical medical care, legal assistance, virtual therapy and support groups. The impact of the pandemic on communities of color and tribal communities has been especially devastating, yet culturally specific programs have not received the funding they need to provide access to life-saving services.
Despite these increased needs, fundraising has also become more challenging in the pandemic. Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, traditionally an opportunity to raise money and awareness about sexual assault, misconduct and abuse, took a different form this year, as many centers had to cancel their signature annual fundraisers. Many programs are facing significant decreases in donations from individuals and foundations, making it challenging to continue to operate and meet the needs of the community.
This is not the time for our nation to turn its back on sexual assault survivors who need our support now.
For victims of sexual assault who rely on local sexual assault programs for critical care and life-saving support, it was deeply disappointing that the first three stimulus packages failed to respond to this urgent need for funding. Congress shouldn’t make that mistake again. Allocating necessary funding to the Sexual Assault Services Program at the Department of Justice in the next COVID-19 relief package will provide critically important resources for victim services, culturally specific programs and tribal coalitions that support survivors in all states and territories.
Rape crisis centers, sexual assault programs and service providers remain passionate about meeting the growing needs of survivors in this new reality, but they need help from Congress. We hope Congress will hear, see and support survivors this time by providing much-needed funding and resources for the Sexual Assault Services Programs and the Crime Victims Fund at the Department of Justice and culturally specific services through the Family Violence Prevention and Services Office.
Terri Poore is a policy director for RALIANCE, a national partnership dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation, and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
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