Wolf, lawmakers have to step up this budget season to help survivors of sexual abuse | Opinion

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By Karen Baker

The time is now for the General Assembly to support rape crisis centers in Pennsylvania with increased resources to address the amplified need for victim support and services, as well as prevention programs for communities.

This day has been on the horizon for a long time.

We read the forecast and heard the rumors. We saw the signs.

The Sandusky trial, multiple Grand Jury reports detailing widespread child sexual abuse inside the Catholic church and the Salisbury school, campus sexual assaults on public and private campuses, sexual assaults of students by teachers, and the two trials of Bill Cosby— have all publically outlined the issues we face in the Commonwealth and have placed Pennsylvania in the spotlight of the nation.

In our own lives we’ve heard the inappropriate sexual jokes, the rumors of bosses pushing boundaries with employees; the child who didn’t want to be near a loved one—who said things that alluded to trouble—but we didn’t listen to our gut or take action; the issues on college campuses, in the workplace, churches, schools and the homes of our loved ones.

The news of exploitive and criminal behaviors by icons in entertainment and media gave way to a flood of first-hand accounts from victims across the nation and the Commonwealth. The #Metoo movement and other high-profile cases simply brought the magnitude of the ‘storm’ into focus.

Now we all know. Sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are serious and widespread problems.

It is a national crisis in need of an immediate response in Pennsylvania.

How we respond to this crisis will say a lot about the priorities inside the Commonwealth. We know Gov. Wolf understands the need. His efforts with the It’s on Us campaign on college campuses across Pennsylvania are admirable—and a step in the right direction.

However, the need for help and support from rape crisis centers throughout the Commonwealth—the ‘Red Crosses’ that respond to sexual assault— is clear now more than ever.

The time is now to provide additional, sustained resources to help survivors weathering the storm both today and in the future.

Here’s why we need increased support:

  • There’s an extraordinary opportunity for change. We are in an unprecedented time of attention to the serious and widespread problems of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, with #MeToo, Judge Kavanaugh hearings, and the PA Grand Jury report on decades of clergy sexual abuse against a thousand children. People are looking for help now. They are listening and trying to bring change to their communities. We must be there for them—now.
  • Increased demand for services: PCAR and its network of rape crisis centers have seen the impacts of this heightened awareness. When comparing the first quarters of 2017 and 2018, it is clear that the demand for services—accompanying victims to hospitals, police stations and court proceedings,  answering hotline calls, and individual and group counseling for victims and their families – has increased.
  • Greater complexity in victim needs: Also of note, victims are reaching out with more complex needs, struggling with the ways sexual violence impacts drug and alcohol dependency, economic insecurity, housing, mental health needs, and other struggles. As other budget line items have been reduced in the past, survivors have turned to rape crisis centers because their services are free and confidential.
  • Increased demand for prevention: As the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault has become undeniable in Pennsylvania, people are asking PCAR and rape crisis centers for help. What should they ask of schools, youth programs and family to increase safety? Are our organization’s policies to prevent and respond to sexual harassment appropriate? How can I help my teenager prepare for dating and college? Investing in prevention is the right thing to do.
  • Immediate need to retain knowledgeable staff: While we have a tremendous potential to stop sexual violence in Pennsylvania, the network of rape crisis centers, which provide services to all 67 counties, does not have the full capacity to mobilize. Centers struggle to provide living wages and access the resources to fullystaff programs to meet the demands of PA communities. These are the first responders to victims, and the work can be emotionally taxing. Given the low wages and high turnover we see in sexual assault and domestic violence centers, we are in a constant cycle of recruiting, training, and then losing qualified staff who go on to more economically stable positions or fields.

The time is now to support rape crisis centers in Pennsylvania with increased resources to address the amplified need for support and services.

Together, we can keep our communities safe.

Karen Baker is the CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. She writes from Harrisburg, Pa.

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