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What can rape crisis centers take away from the Penn State case?

When news stories on the allegations of former Penn State University Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing children broke, many local rape crisis centers in Pennsylvania and across the country faced an increase in calls for services. Stories like this often attract media attention and responding can be overwhelming. In highly public cases of sexual violence, respect and care for the victims should be the primary concern for advocates in the affected community. These cases can be challenging and tiring for all rape crisis centers, but there are several points that can be useful in the future. Partners from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) shared some ideas about their response to Penn State and lessons learned for the future.

Reach out for help if you need it. Media calls may pick up, in addition to disclosures from survivors and requests for training from community members. Know who the designated spokesperson for your agency is and devise a plan for responding. Contact your state coalition for talking points, media tips, and to discuss who should respond to different types of questions.  Community ties and other obligations may make it difficult for local centers to respond to every request. Remember to take care of the counselors and advocates in your agency as they work hard to keep up with the changes. Vicarious trauma is a major concern for anti-violence workers.

Language is important. The words we use to describe the people involved in the case offer an opportunity to educate the media and the public. Use these opportunities to dispel myths about sexual violence. We know that the people who commit sexual violence commonly know and have trusted ties with the victim and the community. If a person uses problematic language, use it as an opportunity to explain that using words like “predator” or “monster” keeps sex offenders invisible.

Refocus for primary prevention. Communities can experience pain, anger and frustration as they process the implications of high profile cases. Redirect that energy and interest into community programming to support primary prevention activities. Preventing sexual violence will also prevent the pain and rage that unfolds in the aftermath. Educate partners on the changes they can make in standards, policies, and messages. Keep resources on the prevention of child sexual abuse in mind as you begin planning community-wide efforts.

Discuss your ongoing needs. High profile cases offer an opportunity to bring needed attention to your important causes. Explore new avenues for collaboration and open doors for future partnerships. Educate your community on the valuable services you provide, and invite them to support you in ending sexual violence and advocating for those impacted by it. Ask for charitable donations to support your staffing and education needs. As rape crisis centers face flat funding or budget cuts, cultivating community support for overburdened advocates is increasingly important. Explain your current needs and limitations, and offer ideas on how they can get involved.

Keep track of your new partners. Document media calls, requests for information, and questions you receive from your local community members. Keep an ongoing list of contacts and reach out to them in the future. You can offer story ideas for media, cultivate supporters, gain volunteers, reach more survivors and make lasting change for the future. Remember to send a quick “thank you” to all of the reporters you talk with.

For more information on how to respond to these kinds of cases, check out some of the resources available online. The article “Answers to questions about recent child sexual abuse cases” offers insight and information to help when discussing responses to allegations of child sexual abuse. Jackson Katz recently partnered with the NSVRC to share a three-part series response to the Penn State Case. Offer resources on how community members can be engaged bystanders in the future.

What’s your favorite strategy for community engagement in ending sexual violence against children?

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