Op-ed by Beverly Frantz, Temple University Institute on Disabilities director of Criminal Justice and Sexuality Initiatives
As Pennsylvania has eased restrictions and begun to lift stay-at-home orders the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization expects the need for sexual assault support and services to increase as the pandemic continues. Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN reported, “As we saw throughout the early weeks of the pandemic, many children lost access to trusted adults, like teachers, and parents of friends, who are typically the first people to spot and reports signs of abuse.” With social distancing and continued restriction of person-to-person contact, such as parents visiting their child, friends getting together, family events, who is going to notice any signs of physical or sexual abuse? Who will notice the signs for people with disabilities?
People with intellectual disabilities experience sexual violence at a much higher rate than people without disabilities. It is important to follow Governor Wolfe’s stay-at-home order so the virus can be contained and to keep people healthy and safe. At the same time, we should not assume that because people are not out in the community, sexual abuse is not happening. Isolation, fear, lack of person-to-person contact with family, friends, co-workers, and other trusted people places them at a higher risk of sexual abuse. They may also be living with or receiving services from their perpetrator. Who can they tell? With limited access to people they trust, they remain silent. If they do tell, staff and/or family members may be reluctant to call the police or take them to the hospital for fear of the coronavirus. Some hospitals are so overloaded with coronavirus patients that it’s difficult for them to do sexual assault exams in a timely manner. Ebony Tucker, the executive director of RALIANCE, a nonprofit focused on ending sexual violence, said that when the restrictions are lifted “we’re going to be seeing a significant increase [in sexual violence]”.
When restrictions are lifted and people have the ability to have person-to-person contact with their family, friends, support coordinators, and other trusted people, we should expect to hear disclosures of sexual abuse. If you are concerned that someone in your family or someone you support may have experienced sexual abuse the first thing to do, unless the person requires medical attention, is to LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. Acknowledge their pain, remind them it wasn’t their fault, offer them supportive reassurances, and be sure not to promise anything that you may not be able to deliver. It is important not to interrupt them or minimize their experience. Too often we unintentionally challenge their experience by making inappropriate comments and asking questions such as, “are you sure it was him or her? He’s a really good guy, are you really sure? This is very important, you don’t want to accuse the wrong person? He’s a nice guy and didn’t mean anything by it.” Or worse, just ignoring what the person is telling you. If you’re not sure what to do or say the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) has resources available for individuals, families, and providers through the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. Dr. Beverly Frantz, from The Institute on Disabilities, is available to provide healthy sexuality resources and anti-sexual abuse information and support throughout COVID-19 and afterward. Dr. Frantz can be reached at (215) 204-5078 or by email email@example.com.
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