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RAINN’s 24-hour hotline offers support for survivors of sexual assault.


Sexual assault affects one in six women in America. For support, many victims turn to confidential telephone helplines.

Twenty years ago, the first national 24-hour sexual assault hotline was founded to help meet the needs of victims across the United States with one toll-free number:  1-800-656-HOPE(4673). Partnering with over 1,000 local rape crisis centers around the United States, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has provided free, confidential support to over 1.5 million callers since 1994. Calls to the national number are automatically routed to the nearest local support center, where hotline volunteers offer emotional support, crisis intervention and advice about everything from local laws to community support services such as hospital accompaniment. From the caller’s perspective, the seamless service means a knowledgeable, understanding and supportive volunteer is ready to listen and help around-the-clock and in the community.

Rebuilding Lives in India

Photograph courtesy Prasanna Gettu

Victims of domestic violence in India find support through a toll-free, 24-hour hotline operated by the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC). Based in Chennai, the organization helps domestic and sexual abuse survivors empower themselves to rebuild their lives. Founded in 2001, PCVC works to provide emotional and practical support structures for women with abusive partners.

The first interactions with survivors usually involve crisis counseling by telephone, explains founder and director Prasanna Gettu. The telephone counselor shares ways for the caller to help stop the abuse and then the caller chooses which options she wants. The organization helps survivors realize that the solutions reside within themselves.

Gettu opened the victim assistance center after completing her Ph.D. in criminology, and postgraduate work in victimology in Japan. “After the first year, we could see that most were domestic violence cases and we didn’t know how to help,” recalls Gettu. While there were programs for distressed women in Tamil Nadu, no organization focused specifically on domestic violence. Gettu and her colleagues began researching how to address this need and found many training programs available in the United States. They contacted the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai in 2002 and were selected to join the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, an exchange opportunity for professionals in a variety of fields. Gettu and another PCVC staff member spent three weeks visiting domestic violence organizations in New York and Washington, D.C.

“We got a lot of support from people there and after we came back also, they continued to send us information. All the learning came from that visit. How and why we needed to set up an undisclosed shelter, how to document cases, how to talk to victims and batterers. The training we attended in that program was our foundation,” says Gettu.

The organization has expanded its services over the years to provide life-skills workshops for survivors, legal assistance, medical aid, support for children in abusive family situations, and more. PCVC also works in close partnership with the burns unit of the Government Kilpauk Medical College—providing support, once survivors leave the hospital, with treatment and physiotherapy at a recovery and healing residential facility.

For more information on domestic violence victim support in India, visit www.pcvconline.org or call PCVC’s 24-hour hotlines—toll-free: 1800-102-PCVC (7282) or landline: +91-44-43111143.

—J.V.M.

According to RAINN, the vast majority of sexual assault victims are under 30, with nearly half under the age of 18. Because today’s youth are more inclined to communicate through instant messaging rather than voice calling, RAINN created the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline in 2006. Some were skeptical about the service in the beginning, and in the first month, just seven people per day turned to the online support. But the number increased steadily and by 2012, online helpline users had jumped to over 400 per day.

RAINN president and founder Scott Berkowitz explains that verbalizing what happened in an assault can be very difficult for the victim. The online hotline offers a secure way for the survivor to communicate, with complete privacy, and still have a one-on-one interaction with the support staff. Users of the online service skew toward younger victims, who may be more comfortable with the online format. “It feels more private,” says Berkowitz, “and for students living in dorms or people in communal apartments or for kids abused by a family member, no one will overhear them.”

Whether online or on the phone, Berkowitz notes that many people who contact the helplines have never told anyone about the assault before, and fear they will be judged. “One of the most common questions is how to disclose this to friends or to parents. We encourage them to find that right person to tell. Like any major trauma, it will be valuable to have a strong support network. Having close friends and family to talk to is important to recovery.”

Many callers also struggle with some element of self-blame, says Berkowitz. “Part of our goal is to help them understand that they were a victim of a horrible crime and it wasn’t anything they did or contributed to.” Many have questions about the process of reporting to the police and what their legal options are. Victims are encouraged to get a medical exam as quickly as possible to collect forensic evidence. In addition to providing direct victim support, RAINN works to educate the public about sexual violence, improve public policy to prevent sexual assault and support anti-rape legislation.

In response to the growing concern about sexual assault in the armed forces, RAINN was hired to operate the new Department of Defense Safe Helpline. The dedicated online helpline offers 24-hour anonymous support for members of the military, in addition to a mobile app that lets survivors develop a personalized self-care plan. “When troops are stationed abroad, they may not have access to a phone network or privacy, but an app offers something on their phone that they can access at any time,” Berkowitz explains. The program guides victims through a series of short questions about symptoms and emotions, and offers visualization and relaxation exercises. According to the Department of Defense, the DOD Safe Helpline now has more than 20,000 users.

Berkowitz admits that it can be difficult to measure success in this line of work. Does an increase in reported sexual assaults indicate a growing problem or just a higher percentage of crimes being reported? “We rely on an annual report from the Department of Justice,” he explains, “the National Crime Victimization Survey, which estimates the number of sexual assaults each year, compared to the number reported to police, based on interviews with tens of thousands of households.” Since 1993, Berkowitz says, the number of sexual assaults each year has dropped by about half, but the percentage reported has gone up from 30 percent to 40 percent in the last five years. Going forward, RAINN hopes to see an environment where every sexual assault survivor chooses to report to the police.

In addition to live support available from the telephone and online hotlines, RAINN’s website includes comprehensive information to help survivors of sexual assault and their friends and family, whether immediately after an incident or many years later. The site also offers free online courses on treating and supporting victims, state laws and on self-care for volunteers, who face a high burnout rate due to the stress of the work. In the past year, www.rainn.org served about 3.4 million unique visitors from the United States. The second highest numbers came from India, at 366,000. 

Sexual violence in America is a problem with no easy solution, says Berkowitz, yet he remains hopeful. “We’re still trying to figure out the answers. The last 20 years show there’s a way to make progress, there’s a way to fight this crime. But it’s a slow process.”

 

Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.