Since the 1970s, victims just miles away from St. Francis Hospital have had access to in-person sexual assault services from Rebuilding Hope! Sexual Assault Center for Pierce County.
Now, a new partnership between Rebuilding Hope and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health recently launched King County’s first and only in-person medical advocacy program in Federal Way for victims of sexual violence.
“Sexual assault for a lot of folks is such an isolating experience that I think it’s just significant to have someone else in the room with you. Someone that you know is there for you, and to offer support in whatever way they can and whatever way is meaningful for the patient,” said Kyra Laughlin, violence prevention coordinator at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.
The advocacy program allows St. Francis emergency room staff, sexual assault nurses or the victim-survivor themselves to request a trained sexual violence advocate to the hospital to offer support and help victims navigate resources.
In its first month of operation beginning in Dec. 2021, the program helped five sexual violence survivors, according to Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.
Typically, sexual assault victim-survivors in King County are given a one-page information guide of resources and a hotline number to dial. Anonymous hotlines do work for some victims, but it’s still a stranger on the other side.
“Victim-survivors just deserve so much more than that,” Laughlin said. Last summer, Laughlin worked with Rebuilding Hope to extend the in-person advocacy services to St. Francis in Federal Way, a city bordering the Pierce County line.
In-person advocacy humanizes the experience, normalizes and validates the experience in a way that can be conveyed directly to the survivor, said Hannah Nichols, advocacy coordinator for Rebuilding Hope. In-person advocacy can also tend to immediate well-being concerns, such as homelessness or other insecurities.
“In-person, those needs can be met more immediately,” Nichols said.
Rebuilding Hope is a state-accredited, community based sexual assault program providing in-person medical advocacy services to all hospitals in Pierce County. Grant stipulations barred the program from extending outside the county, until the partnership with St. Francis was created.
A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a registered nurse trained to care for sexual assault victims, can request an in-person advocate for the patient through Rebuilding Hope.
“With this partnership and the way this program works, we wanted it to be clear that it wasn’t just on the sexual assault nurse examiners to request the advocate presence, but we could actually create a protocol for St. Francis Hospital staff to be the ones to request an advocate’s response to anyone who has disclosed sexual violence,” Nichols said.
Spreading the responsibility allows more victims to be served.
“It takes the responsibility off the victim to request it, but still allows the advocacy service to be consensual and client-led,” Nichols said.
An advocate’s primarily role is to offer support during the exam process, which is focused on evidence collection. The process can include invasive questions about what the person went through and details of the assault to guide the nurse’s exam, which can be re-traumatizing to the victim, Nichols explained.
“Oftentimes, clients will tell us in an in-person setting that we’re the only ones who have told them we believe them,” Nichols said. “If we can be the only person to tell them that in that setting, I think that’s really powerful.”
Advocates walk the victim through what’s going to happen during the exam, answer questions and meet immediate needs and help with navigating systems, such as reporting to law enforcement. Advocates can also be in the room when a victim is reporting to law enforcement and help to inform victims of their rights.
In previous years, Rebuilding Hope received requests from St. Francis nurses for in-person advocates, but the organization had to decline because the hospital is not in Pierce County.
“We know anecdotally the need is there,” Nichols said.
The available Rebuilding Hope hotline also serves secondary victims, community members and community professionals, as well as victim-survivors.
The Rebuilding Hope and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health partnership also provides human trafficking resources. For people at St. Francis Hospital seeking services because of experiences of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) either in the present or past, the partnership provides them with a STEP Case Manager.
Case managers respond directly to the hospital to offer case management and unconditional support as well as resources and referrals for medical, legal, therapeutic and social services across Pierce County, Laughlin said.