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Sexual assault response should be centered around the needs of survivors

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Sexual assault response transcends county lines, and communities across the Bay Area should work together to coordinate services and investigations. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Over the past year, San Francisco’s response to sexual assault, particularly within law enforcement, has been scrutinized for its failure to serve survivors. Although the system has never been perfect, the political will to tackle this issue was finally ignited, leading to a closer examination of current policies and practices. This resulted in the establishment of the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention in September of 2018.

Since then, conversations for areas of improvement have circled around a more comprehensive response to drug facilitated sexual assault, getting survivors their police reports in a timely manner, and ways to better the reporting process for survivors at police stations.

Still, the problems that plague San Francisco are not specific to San Francisco. There are policies within Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) across counties in the Bay Area that are not survivor-centered, meaning they do not center the needs and wellbeing of survivors. A SART is a team of agencies that provide immediate care to survivors after their assault and its members typically include, law enforcement, trained sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), rape crisis counselors, and other stakeholders that conduct evidence collection and investigation. Although SARTs are set up to support survivors, some of their practices, as seen in the City and of County San Francisco, do not do that effectively.

However, sexual assault response transcends county lines. For survivors who live in San Francisco but are assaulted in Marin, for example, they then have to work with the SART in Marin. And yet, their trauma and need for long-term support services follows them back to San Francisco. This means that sexual violence in Marin is an issue in San Francisco and vice versa, requiring nuanced and regional approaches to sexual assault response throughout the Bay Area.

Looking more closely at our neighboring county, Marin, there is one practice in particular that is deeply troubling: there are no in-county SART exams, more commonly known as rape kits. Instead, survivors in Marin who want a SART exam are transported by police car to a hospital in Vallejo. Adding difficulty to an already difficult process, this policy transforms a free service that the county offers into a burden that many do not want to deal with.

Such a practice, although in Marin, does have implications for San Francisco and the survivors who live here, for it is symptomatic of a larger culture that does not adequately understand or respond to the trauma of survivors. Standing up for survivors and policies that are survivor-centered is work that extends well beyond our 48 miles.

Anna Pletcher, a former candidate for District Attorney in Marin, and Mellissa Ahern, a local nurse, are fighting for survivors in their community in order to bring SART exams back to Marin. And they are doing so with a regional lens.

“One of the options we were considering as we were thinking about how to solve this problem,” explains Pletcher, “…was sharing a pool of nurses with San Francisco because they are so close, especially southern Marin.” Although, both Pletcher and Ahern point to a partnership with Napa/Solano SANE/SART as a more viable option. Opponents of moving SART exams back to Marin argue that the solution is more complicated, as it will require additional funds and could cause a strain on the pool of nurses that would most likely be pulled from the Napa-Solano SANE/SART. “In counties, like marin, that are resource rich, there is really no excuse in not providing them,” Pletcher counters, “…when a victim shows up at the hospital after she has been traumatized, to be told that you cannot be treated at a local hospital, put in a police car, sent out to another town, another county, in a drive that could be well over an hour…It’s adding insult to injury.”

We have survivors living in our county who are assaulted in others — like Marin — which means they come into contact with other SART programs. If we are concerned with supporting survivors, we cannot attempt to do so in the City and County of San Francisco alone. We must advocate for policies that are survivor-centered in San Francisco and across the Bay Area.

Bianca Rosen is a local writer and anti-rape activist.

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