SOS: The Role of Sexual Assault Advocates

“The legal aspect is one thing, but the healing aspect is another. Often survivors have to pay out of pocket to receive services for trauma they endured by the hands of someone else.”

Healing/Trauma reporting is made possible by NAMI Minnesota (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses and their families.

Alla Hassan (l) and PaHoua Vang. Photo Sarah Whiting

Sexual Violence Services (known as SOS) is a small advocacy agency of six staff and about 40 volunteers that works directly with Ramsey County departments to help survivors of sexual assault, including friends and family. SOS helped to start the “Begin by Believing” campaign in Ramsey County, geared toward professionals working with people who had experienced sexual assault.

Alla Hassan has been an advocate with SOS since 2018, with a focus on prevention of violence. “What is causing sexual violence to take place and how can we reduce the incident rates? How can we do it collectively as a community to address the social norms and change them to make sure that we have healthy communities, healthy relationships, consent, [and] healthy boundaries?”

Hassan says that with the country’s foundation built on expediency — getting what we want by oppressing another — a root of the violence in our culture involves dismantling the culture of superiority. 

“This system was never designed for survivors, so we need to upgrade the entire system and make it more centered on victim support. When we do that, I feel all of the resources and services would be more trauma informed,” Hassan says. “The legal aspect is one thing, but the healing aspect is another. Often survivors have to pay out of pocket to receive services for trauma they endured by the hands of someone else.”

SOS takes the lead from survivors of what they would like to see and do. Says Hassan,  “A lot of times we don’t even know what justice and healing is, but hearing that question out loud allows them to process what their needs and wants are.”


PaHoua Vang is the former interim program supervisor at SOS. “Many survivors don’t actually want to go through the criminal justice system,” she says. “Most of the time they just want the behavior to stop.”

In some communities there are clan councils and family mediation, but those avenues also can include bias, patriarchy, dominance, and victim-blaming language. “We just need more options.”

Challenges

Vang suggests important changes are needed in order to support true victim advocacy and healing work. “This system was built on basically taking advantage of women who are willing to do the work without getting compensated for it,” Vang says. “You can’t just keep exploiting people’s hearts and energies like that, because this is really trauma-heavy work.”

Vang notes that there has been an effort to try to reduce the time advocates spend applying for grants to do the work, and to get that funding from consistent sources. SOS has been funded in a two-year grant cycle from Minnesota’s Office of Justice. Because of the pandemic, there is currently a non-competitive round that allows agencies to seek the same or fewer dollars as they had in a previous round, which does not allow for growth. Newer culturally-specific programs cannot apply for this funding right now. 

The funding also requires the use of volunteers. “We have 40 volunteers who help with the crisis line and go into the hospitals in the middle of the night,” Vang says. Since the criminal justice process is long, especially with the pandemic, advocates often check in monthly for years to see how people are doing.

Vang worries that these structurally embedded funding systems are not really focusing on the needs of growing numbers and cultures of victims. Currently books for healing and lists of therapists are primarily only in English. Many resources are not inclusive of violence against all genders or faiths.

Compensation to survivors for medical, mental health, lost wages, and other expenses can be offered only if a police report is filed.

Mental health crisis response teams are partnering with law enforcement to respond through the 911 call center, but advocates like SOS don’t have the funding capacity to be part of that work even though, Vang says, “in the last year their calls have increased dramatically.”


There are a few individuals to support various communities, but sometimes Hassan says she needs to cast a wider net to connect survivors with trusted individuals. She might, for example, find fellow advocates at other places around the state. “I am from Sudan, and if I have someone who is from Sudan, they are more likely to trust me because I am relating to them on our culture.”

There are different challenges faced in rural areas, Vang points out. Because people tend to know each other more in small towns, victims might be less likely to report. Some assault survivors have to drive hours to reach a hospital, or don’t have easy access to transportation.

Good News

The good news for advocates is that notable legislative changes were made this year that eliminate the statute of limitations for reporting gender-based violence crimes to law enforcement. 

“Sexual violence is unlike any other crime,” says Hassan  “There are a lot of different dynamics about why people don’t report. [Having more time to report] is truly significant and historical. There never should have been a time limit.

“I think all credit goes to victim survivors who have been pushing for this forever,” she continues. “We are nowhere near where we should be, but I am hopeful that as people start to listen to survivors, a lot of important changes will take place.”


Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

Funding needs for sexual assault services

SOS helpline: 651-266-1000


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