In studies of adults who were sexually abused as children, two out of three said they never told anyone about the abuse during childhood (London, Bruck, Ceci & Shuman). Accordingly, we can expect survivors may not seek help until they are adults. As advocates, we should feel prepared to work with adult survivors who may no longer be in an immediate danger of assault and meet these survivors in varied places along the healing spectrum. Here are some considerations in your advocacy with these adult clients:
Consider safety differently in your advocacy.
We work with clients to discover what feels safe and help them to establish those environments and interactions in their lives through safety planning.
- "What does safety look like or feel like?”
- “Think about a time when you felt safe: what made it feel that way?”
Safety planning with adult survivors might include trigger plans, grounding exercises, strategies for minimizing interactions with abuser(s), or thinking through how to say no to their family’s requests to visit. Advocates can work with survivors of intrafamilial sexual violence to create safety plans when survivors want to go home for the holidays, must coordinate care of an ailing parent with their sibling perpetrator, or support their mother at the funeral of their abusive step-father.
We can also help establish feelings of safety through consistency and predictability in what our clients expect from us. Being clear about what you can provide, your availability, as well as being on time for appointments with the survivor all help to establish trust and safety.
Use advocacy as an opportunity for the survivor to exercise choice and control.
All choices, even small ones, are important because the personal experience of choice builds the ability to direct one’s own life and dream. Choosing a time to meet, a place to sit, the topic for discussion, the order of their priorities — these all contribute to overall healing of survivors. Choice will also help foster the safety planning aspects of advocacy and build trusting relationships with your clients.
- “Here are several options, are you feeling like any of them sound right for you?”
- “Even if they don’t seem feasible right now, what ideas do you have?”
Encourage the concepts of self-determination, autonomy, and empowerment.
Sexual violence — regardless of the type of victimization — is about silence and powerlessness. Advocacy is a partnership with survivors that restores the survivor’s voice, choice, and power. “Advocates are a roadmap for survivors, rather than a GPS system” (Bein, Davis, Green).
- “Let’s think together about ways you can assert yourself in the situation.”
- “What makes you feel stronger?"
Advocacy is important and helpful regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.
As the trauma of sexual abuse continues long past a singular assault, so too does the need for advocacy. Recovery from sexual abuse is not a linear experience and survivors needs or readiness with occur different stages of their life.
Remember in times when you feel like you aren’t doing enough: survivors don’t always need tangible resources. Just listening and validating is helpful.
- Bein, K. (2011) “Action, Engagement, Remembering: Services for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse,” Resource Sharing Project.
- Bein, K. / Davis, V. / Green, L. (2016) “Strengthening Our Practice: The Ten Essential Strengths of Sexual Violence Victim Advocates in Dual and Multi-Service Advocacy Agencies” (Second Edition), Resource Sharing Project.
- Levy-Peck, J., Micheel, L. (2014) Circle of Hope: A Guide for Conducting Effective Psychoeducational Support Groups, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
- London, K., Bruck, M., Ceci, S.J., & Shuman, D.W. (2005). “Disclosure of child sexual abuse. What does the research tell us about the ways that children tell?” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.