FMCC’s ‘Fifth Friday’ series holds discussions about assault

Jennifer Abrams, program manager of Victim Advocacy Services of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, participated in a discussion on sexual assault and the affect on the victim at Fulton-Montgomery Community College on Friday as part of the Fifth Friday Speaker Series sponsored by the FM Foundation. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

JOHNSTOWN — The FM Foundation of Fulton-Montgomery Community College hosted a discussion on sexual assault and the affect on the victim last week as part of the Fifth Friday Speaker Series.

The Fifth Friday Speaker Series is sponsored by the FM Foundation, featuring guests seeking to educate students and community members on emergent topics through public discourse.

Friday’s event featured a discussion with Jennifer Abrams, program manager of Victim Advocacy Services of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, who began by explaining what victim advocates do.

“We respond to anybody who has been the victim of a crime, it could be an assault, it could be arson, it could be theft, it could be a DWI related incident, primarily though, we work with survivors of sexual violence,” Abrams said.

Victim advocates offer the survivors of sexual violence ongoing support throughout their recovery and legal process. Abrams explained that a number of area hospitals have relationships with Planned Parenthood whereby nurses will call victim advocates to the hospital when survivors are admitted.

Advocates meet with survivors offering to stay with them while they undergo examination, explaining what will happen, explaining their options both at the hospital and with law enforcement.

Advocates help survivors seek support in a variety of ways in the early stages of the reporting process if they want to file charges and throughout the legal process and their recovery until the survivor feels the support is no longer needed.

“There are legal advocates at the DA’s office, however, if the case never makes it to court all that support ends. We’re not attached to any other agency, we’re there specifically for the survivor from the beginning, when the hospital calls us, all the way to the end when the whole circus is over and everybody is gone, we’re still there,” Abrams said.

Abrams’ agency works in eight counties, including Fulton and Montgomery counties, providing support to survivors and education in schools and the community to try to prevent assaults by teaching young people about what is appropriate and teaching community members what they can do, how they can respond and what services are available.

“I’m here today to talk about the impacts of sexual assault on the victim. And as you can imagine, there are many, many, many impacts that a victim experiences beginning immediately during the assault,” Abrams said.

Abrams noted that victims experience a wide range of involuntary reactions, from the fight or flight response, to any number of emotions that may vacillate from sobbing to laughter.

“It’s not really as uncommon as you might think to have somebody being so nervous and so on the edge of hysteria that it turns from grief, sadness, anger into laughter, that can happen,” Abrams said. “Your brain is putting out so many chemicals.”

She noted that sexual assault results in trauma that can often be difficult to process and may result in incomplete memories.

“It’s very difficult for a trauma victim to put things into a timeline, it kind of looks like taking a puzzle and throwing all of the piece on the floor, but some of them might not even be there, and asking someone to put them in order; some of the pieces might be missing, some of them might come back, some of them might never,” Abrams said. “Sometimes, when the memories come back, we remember them differently than we did at the time of the trauma.”

This can create a fear in victims that they will not be believed if they report their assault to someone they know or to law enforcement and that they could be charged for giving a false statement if their memories appear inconsistent.

Abrams pointed out that sexual assaults have a rate of false reporting similar to other crimes nationwide at roughly 2 to 8 percent geographically, arguing that people should believe others when they say they are victims of sexual assault.

“The biggest thing that you can do is listen. If somebody comes to you and tells you that they were sexually abused, believe them,” Abrams said. “You don’t stand to lose anything just by believing, just by believing in a non-judgmental way and pointing somebody towards resources so they can get help.”

Aside from the fear of being believed, victims may struggle with whether to tell based on who committed the assault, as Abrams noted that 80 percent of victims know or are acquainted with their attacker.

“A lot of times we think of a rape or rapist as someone who is jumping out of a bush to attack somebody, but that’s rarely the case. Most of the time it will be somebody known to the victim, it will be a friend, it will be a family member, it could be a teammate, it could be a teacher, it could be someone very well known to the victim,” Abrams said.

The victim may fear what will happen to their attacker or feel pressured by relatives or other people in their lives not to tell.

“This person is often being exposed to their perpetrator over and over again, especially if it’s a family member,” Abrams said. “Their perpetrator is maybe someone that they love and care a lot about and don’t want to see them get in trouble.”

For these reasons and more, listening is essential for law enforcement and hospital personnel who make contact with victims.

“The whole interaction between the survivor and the first responder is kind of going to set the tone for the victim’s ability to recover from the incident. If someone is not trauma-informed they might not understand what they’re looking at when they see somebody that’s experiencing it,” Abrams said. “I can’t really stress enough how important it is.”

After surviving sexual assault, Abrams said many individuals suffer from depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and tendencies. She noted the trauma of sexual assault can lead survivors to develop unhealthy relationships, addictions, eating disorders and other harmful behaviors.

While Victim Advocacy Services do not include therapeutic services, Abrams said the agency does a number of referrals to try to get victims the help they need.

Abrams noted that the impact of sexual assault reaches beyond the direct victims, with family members and loved ones impacted as secondary victims. There is also the societal cost of sexual assault in the U.S. where $127 billion is spent annually supporting survivors.

“We’ve worked on over 1,000 cases this year,” Abrams said. “Statistically, with one in every four women and one in every six men being sexually assaulted in their lifetime in this country, there is a strong likelihood that you may know someone who needs the services.”

“So when people think it’s not their problem, it is. It’s everybody’s problem.”

Victim Advocacy Services maintains a 24-hour sexual violence hotline for past and present survivors of sexual assault where trained staff members answer questions, provide crisis counseling, offer referrals and accompany survivors to local emergency and police departments by calling 1-866-307-4086.