Some advocates are noticing fewer calls, some are noticing a change in the kind of calls theyre getting.
Some advocates are noticing fewer calls, some are noticing a change in the kind of calls they're getting. Chainarong Prasertthai/Getty Images

Kyra Laughlin's phone hasn't been ringing as often this month. Laughlin is a victim advocate for a hospital in the Puget Sound area. Her job consists of two types of calls: hotline calls and calls from the hospital's emergency department when a patient who has experienced a sexual assault turns up.

"The most meaningful part of my job is sitting alongside someone experiencing a lot of trauma and holding space with them," Laughlin told me.

That's become a lot harder during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Typically, when Laughlin shows up to the emergency department, the patient is already in a hospital bed. A registered nurse examiner is also there. Laughlin will talk to the patient, she discusses whether they want to undergo evidence collection, and, mostly, she validates their experience, Laughlin said.

"For me," Laughlin said, "the value of doing this work is showing up for other people in ways people didn’t show up for me." Laughlin told me she was raped by a coworker during her senior year at the University of Washington. "That's why the 'sharing space' thing is really important to me and that’s why right now it’s really hard."

Laughlin has not been able to report in-person to the emergency department since March 23 due to social distancing precautions.

Her call volume has dropped substantially. She's only gotten three emergency department calls in the time she's been working remotely. Two of those people left before she could get on the phone with them. Typically, she gets about 4 to 5 emergency department calls a week.

The one call she handled remotely was demoralizing.

"It’s so hard to build that relationship and trust over the phone," Laughlin said.

At a staff meeting, other advocates said they hadn't gotten any calls out to the hospital either. There has also been a decrease in new clients calling the hotline.

It's hard to say why that is. One thing Laughlin can think of is that people are locked inside and unable to reach out for help, especially if they are stuck sheltering-in-place with their abuser.

"There are all these compounding factors that are not only putting folks in front of danger but making it 10 times more difficult to get help," Laughlin said.

Laurel Redden, the marketing and communications manager for King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC), said that the hospitals they work with are "not seeing the volume of people seeking sexual assault exams" as usual.

"We don't know why that is," Redden said. Redden doesn't know if fewer assaults are happening or whether people are not going into the hospital when assaults happen. "Reporting of that is not happening at a rate that we know one way or the other."

The decision to get evidence collected after a sexual assault is a decision many people already have a hard time making, Laughlin explained, but now there's added risk. "Those people have to decide 'Do I go to the emergency room to collect evidence for a case that may or may not go to trial or do I not and make it impossible to win my case?'"

She's worried about what will happen once "this is over with." It could go one of two ways, Laughlin hypothesized: We will "either see this big surge and intake of people calling and wanting support," or, "And this is a sincere fear of mine," Laughlin prefaced, "people are going to feel so bogged down and that getting money to pay rent, getting their jobs back, and affording food will take priority over getting support."

There's no way to tell what will happen and that "makes me really nervous," Laughlin said.

But people are definitely still casting out looking for help.

While Laughlin's hotline's activity has dipped, Redden said that KSARC's hotline hasn't really changed. What has changed though, according to KSARC's resource line manager Laura Lurry, is the types of calls they're getting.

"The majority of our cases have been from callers who are now reporting or needing to talk about things in the past," Lurry said. She said that those make up 60 to 70 percent of their calls right now. "Those callers are having the time to think about those things and having the courage to put a voice to those things."

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A lot of these people describe how they used to be active and on-the-go but now because of the pandemic they don't have those distractions. The isolation is getting to people, making them more anxious, Lurry described.

But, that's what KSARC's for.

"The most important thing is for people to know that we’re here," Lurry said, "and it is doesn’t have to be an immediate crisis that they’re calling about. The line (888.99.VOICE) is called at any time for people to process things."

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