BeLEAF Survivor's Sexual Assault Services program: connecting survivors to life-saving resources

What challenge is the Sexual Assault Services program designed to figure out/address?

BeLEAF Survivors provides a safe and compassionate environment to promote hope and healing after sexual assault. The “LEAF” portion of BeLEAF means lifting, empowering, advocating and fighting for survivors, allies and a culture of consent. BeLEAF is the parent organization of two “sister” programs: Sexual Assault Services and Stop Child Abuse & Neglect. For the purposes of this article, we will be highlighting the SAS program.

SAS is the only program in Racine County dedicated solely to the provision of services for sexual assault victims. SAS offers a non-judgmental, supportive environment where sexual assault victims can seek support, advocacy and healing. When victims feel believed and safe, they are more likely to get the help that they need, making these individuals healthier and safer. They are also more likely to report their assault, potentially leading to the successful prosecution of their offenders, thus protecting others in the community who may have become victims of those offenders.

What does the Sexual Assault Services program do (overarchingly and on a daily basis)?

SAS is Racine County's rape crisis center and provides a variety of services at no cost. No sexual assault survivor should have to pay to heal from their trauma. SAS provides a variety of services and support for survivors and the community, including:

Crisis Intervention — Crisis intervention is staffed with a 24/7/365 helpline and 24-hour hospital response teams to support survivors when they present at the ER for SANE exams. The volunteers are trained and managed by SAS staff.

Personal Advocacy — Personal advocacy is given to assist survivors applying for public benefits, intervening with an employer or landlord, helping secure housing or employment, etc.

Legal Advocacy — Legal advocacy supports survivors while navigating the criminal justice system, filing restraining orders, providing guidance with immigration issues, etc.

Family Advocacy — Family advocacy supports families at the Racine County Child Advocacy Center who are there for interviews and/ or medical exams pertaining to a child abuse investigation.

Counseling — Counseling is available to individuals, couples, families and groups and is open to survivors and support people. All therapy is provided by two licensed, Masters-level therapists from the Racine offices, schools, correctional institutions or other offsite locations.

Information and Referral — Information and referrals to other community programs and supports is provided. When we cannot provide a needed service to an individual, we refer that individual to someone who can.

Bilingual Services — Bilingual services are provided. The Bilingual Outreach Advocate and the Bilingual Therapist provide services in Spanish, providing access to all program services by the sizable Spanish speaking population of our community.

Outreach — Outreach services make connections with and provide presentations and materials to other agencies and programs in the community and receive referrals for service from those sources. SAS also engages in digital outreach through various social media platforms.

Community Awareness and Education — Community awareness and education includes public events and educational presentations to raise community awareness and prevention of issues surrounding sexual violence and to develop our community’s compassionate response to sexual assault survivors.

What is the impact of the Sexual Assault Services program?

In 2021 alone, SAS's two Masters-level therapists served 71 clients in 1,001 therapy sessions and SAS staff and volunteer advocates answered 424 calls on the 24/7/365 helpline to provide crisis intervention to survivors. Also during this time, SAS staff and volunteer advocates provided 92 hospital response visits to support survivors when they arrived at emergency rooms for SANE exams. 

Along with data, the stories of the clients we have supported also show our impact in the community. One example, is our work with SM.

SM is a Spanish-speaking mother whose 12-year-old daughter, KM, was first seen at the Racine County Child Advocacy Center (CAC) and disclosed an assault. SM was provided family advocacy at the CAC in Spanish by the Bilingual Outreach Advocate (BOA).

A few months later, SM called SAS reporting some concerns about KM and requesting counseling for her. The BOA explained that SAS currently has a waiting list for counseling but mentioned a support group for adolescent girls that SAS was starting in the coming weeks. The BOA set up an appointment with the facilitator of the group for an intake. During this appointment the BOA provided language assistance and helped communicate SM's concerns to the SAS therapist. SM also signed a release of information to allow the BOA to contact law enforcement to help get some information regarding the case. The BOA helped SM sign up for a food giveaway organized by the Hispanic Roundtable to help address the family’s food insecurities. The BOA also let SM know about the FoodShare and WIC programs and offered assistance with enrollment if needed, and SM signed up for both programs over the next few weeks.

After several more weeks, SM called the SAS office looking for help with rent. Her partner had applied for assistance, but the application was taking longer than expected to process, so the landlord was threatening to evict them. Together with Saint Vincent de Paul, SAS helped the family pay their overdue rent, and the BOA communicated with the landlord who agreed to let the family stay in the home while the rental assistance continued to process. It has since come through.

SAS and the BOA have been able to provide this family with many resources and much needed assistance and will continue to be there for the family whenever needed.

This is just one example of the many lives SAS has helped over the years.

What does the future look like for the Sexual Assault Services program?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a community that didn’t need Sexual Assault Services in 10 years? That is an aspirational goal. Realistically, we are preparing for a continued, if not growing, need. We are working towards ways to increase our capacity and there are three strategies that come to mind:

First, SAS would like to find funding to hire a third therapist. Our current therapy waiting list expanded quite a bit since the pandemic and stands at about 60 people. This would also give us the ability to offer more individual and group therapy sessions in Racine's community schools to benefit children who’ve experienced sexual abuse and assault.

Second, SAS would like to be able to recruit and retain more volunteer advocates to staff the 24/7/365 Helpline and hospital response. This is particularly important since Racine County’s newest hospital facility, Advocate Aurora Mt. Pleasant, would like to have SAS advocates coordinate with their SANE program. Growth is necessary to meet those needs since we sometimes struggle to get coverage for the two hospitals we currently serve: Ascension All Saints (Racine) and Aurora Memorial Hospital (Burlington).

Third, SAS wants to modernize to reach survivors in new ways. For example, we feel that offering a crisis text line in addition to our current phone 24/7/365 Helpline would offer a helpful alternative to survivors. Some people may feel more comfortable with the increased anonymity of texting. It would also offer more security to a survivor who might need to reach out for support but be in a situation where an abuser is present or where they would otherwise be uncomfortable speaking.

SAS is used to initiating growth and adapting to remain impactful and relevant. The Sexual Assault Services and Stop Child Abuse & Neglect programs have operated in the Racine community for decades, first as programs of Lutheran Social Services and more recently under the fiscal sponsorship of Focus on Community. However, on July 1, 2021, SAS and SCAN joined together to launch their new independent parent agency, BeLEAF Survivors. BeLEAF just marked its first anniversary after a very busy, accomplished, and successful year. We look forward to many more!

Karen Fetherston is the Executive Director for BeLEAF Survivors.