By Racheal Hebert, LCSW, BACS, President & CEO
On March 16, 2020, STAR made the decision to close our offices throughout Louisiana and transition our staff to working from home. This process happened quickly and with intention to ensure that our staff and clients remained as safe as possible during the emerging public health pandemic, Covid-19. Within days, STAR staff informed all active clients about the transition to remote services and STAR leadership equipped employees with the necessary resources to provide phone and virtual services while maintaining the highest level of confidentiality and privacy for our clients.
How our Services Have Been Impacted
Throughout this process, we anticipated that a transition to remote working would significantly disrupt our core services, specifically those services we are accustomed to providing in-person, including our hospital accompaniment, criminal justice system accompaniment, and legal representation services.
Our most pressing concern has been and continues to be the disruption to our 24/7 response to local hospitals to accompany survivors of sexual assault and rape in need of a forensic medical exam (FME). Our concerns here are two-fold. First, with the increasing numbers of Covid-19 cases throughout our service areas, we anticipated that fewer survivors would report to the hospital for an FME due to the concern of being exposed to Covid-19. Our second concern was the safety of our staff and volunteers accompanying survivors to the hospital given the limits to visitors at the hospital and also the risk of contracting Covid-19.
Across the nation, sexual assault service providers report a drastic decrease in survivors reporting to hospitals to receive FMEs. In addition, many hospitals still prohibit visitors from accompanying individuals into emergency rooms to reduce risk of Covid-19 spread, or have reinstated this prohibition due to cases once again increasing. National trends reflect what we are experiencing at STAR.
STAR’s in-person accompaniment services to the hospital remain suspended at this time; however, STAR continues to offer immediate, crisis services to survivors who report to the hospital via phone, and we conduct prompt follow-up with survivors after an FME. This allows the survivor to receive an introduction to STAR at the hospital, which allows for greater connection when STAR conducts follow-up with the survivor in the days after the FME.
Over the past month, courts have begun to reopen or adjust their courtrooms to a virtual setting; therefore, STAR’s legal services are now increasing after experiencing a significant dip in service numbers earlier this spring/summer.
While there remain barriers to survivors and our staff accessing hospitals and courts in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, other STAR services have experienced an increase in service requests. When comparing services numbers from April-June 2019 and April-June 2020 we found:
- 5% increase in hotline calls answered
- 40% increase in counseling sessions provided
The increase in hotline calls and counseling sessions reflect the changing needs of sexual trauma survivors at this time. Many of the individuals we serve have experienced one or more traumas that occurred many months or years prior to reaching out for assistance from STAR. At this time, we also know that people’s anxiety is being triggered by other factors including the pandemic and the racist violence that has sparked a renewed social movement. This anxiety may serve as a catalyst for survivors reaching out to find support through our hotline and through in-person counseling. Many survivors express appreciation for these services and our accessibility in continuing to provide these services remotely throughout the pandemic.
What the Future Holds
At this time, all of STAR’s offices remain closed to the public. We do not feel confident that it is safe to reopen our offices or resume in-person accompaniment services at this time. We continue to closely monitor the number of Covid-19 cases in our service areas as well as the response from our local officials regarding closures and phases of reopening. Our staff are in contact with our hospital partners to assess the constantly changing landscape they are facing and how that relates to our ability to resume in-person accompaniment services.
STAR remains available to our community 24/7 to support survivors and their loved ones with support, information, and resources through our hotline, 1-855-435-STAR. Our services to survivors are provided remotely through phone and virtual sessions. We encourage anyone who has been struggling with the impacts of sexual trauma during this pandemic to contact us for support.