NORRISTOWN — As the Victim Services of Montgomery County kicks off a series of programs recognizing April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has prompted organizers to take their events online.
It begs the question: How has the public health crisis affected the reporting of sexual assault?
While the local statistics are unclear, Erin Milbourne, direct services supervisor with the Norristown-based nonprofit, noted a “major decrease even in calls to our hotline.”
“I think that the numbers could be much higher,” Milbourne said. “I’m thinking too about sexual violence that’s happening within a home. It might just be unsafe if you’re quarantined and you’re with the offender.”
Victim Services Center of Montgomery County is a comprehensive agency that operates a 24/7 hotline, counseling and other services to help navigate the criminal justice process.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milbourne observed a drop in “accompaniment” for respective medical and law enforcement avenues.
“People were really nervous to go to the hospital for any type of medical exam or medical follow-up after a sexual assault. There was great fear because there [were] a lot of unknowns,” Milbourne said. “ … We offer police accompaniment for those who want to file a report; we’ve definitely seen a decrease in that, and I’m not sure if that's because there’s a lower amount of sexual assaults happening? I mean my gut tells me no.”
“It probably is because there’s still a concern of going to any place if you’re unvaccinated, that kind of thing. Same with the hospitals,” she continued. “We’ve definitely seen a decrease in our number of those wanting medical accompaniment if they’re getting a forensic rape exam.”
Shara Kaszovitz, a licensed clinical social worker at the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in Miami, cited statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network that “33 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a current or former intimate partner,” and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that “34 perfect of child sexual abuse cases reported to police are perpetrated by a family member.”
“However, due to under reporting, the actual incidents of sexual assault by someone in the home is thought to be higher,” Kaszovitz writes in a Jackson Health System blog post.
“If we’re talking about abuse with someone close to them whether that’s a partner for sure I think sexual violence is happening probably at a much more alarming rate than what’s being reported just out of pure safety issues,” Milbourne said. “And even thinking of kids if they’re being abused -- the people they might have access to to reach out for help they just don’t have it in that same capacity.”
Additionally, “A Second, Silent Pandemic: Sexual Violence in the time of COVID-19,” published on Harvard Medical School’s Center for Primary Care website on May 1, 2020, also examines possible instances of sexual assault during times of crisis.
Author Taylor Walker, an incoming family medicine resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, noted similarities between a pandemic and a natural disaster.
“Evidence shows that rates of sexual violence increase during states of emergency, including natural disasters, active conflict, and health crises,” Walkner writes. “For example, reports indicate that sexual assault increased by 45 [percent] during Hurricane Katrina and the recovery period. The stress, fear and sense of helplessness associated with emergencies tend to increase risk factors for perpetration of violence against women.”
Still, while Milbourne expects experts will continue examining data surrounding these issues, she feels for the victims of these horrific acts who may be struggling to get assistance.
“I mean for me, doing the clinical work, but also the advocacy work, yeah it’s heartbreaking to know people are probably in really dire situations and don't feel safe enough to reach out for support or help,” Milbourne said.
Despite these instances of uncertainty over the past year, Milbourne did observe that “our numbers have climbed” when it comes to people getting help after experiencing “past abuse.”
“That’s something that I think has been a silver lining, if there is any right? Is that those who may have experienced sexual abuse, or childhood sexual abuse, maybe that didn’t have the time to really care for themselves really in the way to seek therapeutic help, we’ve definitely seen that number increase,” she said. “So … I'm glad that [people have found the time and the resource to connect with us for sure.”
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault call the center’s hotline at 1-888-521-0983 or visit www.victimservicescenter.org for more local resources. For more information about RAINN, visit www.rainn.org.