The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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One of the intents of the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act, which the D.C. Council passed unanimously in November 2019, was to expand rape survivors’ right to an advocate—a trained employee of a community-based organization that provides counseling, support, and assistance to suriviors. Since its passage, however, implementation has been slow going. The long awaited soft launch of the expanded adult advocacy program was finally scheduled for May 10, 2021, but was paused days before it would have started amid concerns that the roll out didn’t capture the intent of the law.

According to Michelle Garcia, director of the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, the department tasked with funding and implementing the program, the launch was stopped, “because we just didn’t have everything worked out with all the pieces.” Garcia continues, “we just needed more time to work through exactly what implementation will look like.” On Friday, May 28, more than two weeks since the launch was paused and a year and half since the law was passed, OVSJG finally released standards for the organizations providing sexual assault advocacy services under the law.

Prior to the creation of these standards, the city’s SAVRAA Independent Expert Consultant Elisabeth Olds wrote in a statement shared with multiple audiences, including City Paper: “The implementation process has highlighted the need to explicitly clarify the model of advocacy chosen by the District through SAVRAA 2014 and 2019, and to separate that model from any one organization that might provide those services now or in the future.” That model, advocates say, is vertical advocacy: One advocate responds to the original request by a rape survivor and continues with them for as long as needed. In essence, the vertical model combines advocacy with ongoing case management to minimize secondary trauma from the system and information gaps between providers.  

According to numbers from Olds, the Metropolitan Police Department received 1,391 reports of sexual assault (including abuse investigations that didn’t classify to sexual offense investigations) in 2019; another 258 adults received sexual assault forensic exams, but did not report to police. Additionally, there were 141 youth reports. Before the Sexual Assault Victim’s Rights Act, passed in 2014 following a scathing 2013 report from Human Rights Watch detailing MPD’s handling of sexual assault cases and treatment of survivors, D.C. relied on a more acute style of survivor advocacy, where an advocate (often a volunteer) would meet the survivor at the hospital during the medical forensic exam to collect evidence. The advocate would provide moral support, but few, if any, follow up services. 

“I will forever be grateful for the [volunteer] advocate that sat with me during the [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner] exam after I was raped,” recounted a local, anonymous survivor in DC Justice for Survivors Campaign’s May 21 written testimony to the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. The survivor recalled the comfort provided by the advocate, but added: 

“What I also remember, all these years later, is how she wasn’t able to answer any of my questions. … She couldn’t answer my questions about why MPD had been unclear about whether they’d be able to take the report I was trying to file, or why they had interrogated me like I was the criminal …  I also wasn’t given her phone number, so I had no way to contact her later when I had questions about how to deal with a detective that wasn’t returning my calls, or panicked when I started second guessing some of my medical care decisions…” This survivor, like several others quoted in the testimony, believes vertical advocacy would’ve eased the trauma of trying to navigate various systems during an already traumatic time.

Following implementation of SAVRA, which gave adult survivors the right to an advocate during a medical forensic exam and initial interview with MPD, the Network for Victim Recovery of DC handled all advocate requests using a vertical advocacy model. Over the years, various stakeholders have worked together to amend the initial law so it provides more robust rights for survivors of sexual assault. The 2019 law built on the original—expanding both the right to an advocate to youth (ages 13 to 17) as well as when survivors are entitled to one. Now an advocate can be requested at any point during a hospital visit and for any interviews with MPD and other District agencies. (The youth advocacy program has launched with a single provider, Safe Shores.)

While a date for the adult launch has still not been set, Garcia confirms NVRDC is working with all adult survivors who request an advocate under the 2019 law. The complexity surrounding the adult program, according to Garcia, is the fact that two providers—NVRDC and the DC Rape Crisis Center—have been awarded grant money to run the expanded program. “We’ve been working collectively to build a coordinated system,” Garcia says. “It’s obviously more complex than just having a single provider.” 

DCJSC, a grassroots coalition of sexual assault survivors and allies, however, has voiced concerns that the program may not meet the needs intended under the law. In a May 4 letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser, which City Paper obtained, DCJSC writes: “Unfortunately, we have grave concerns that the implementation process of the SAVRAA advocates program has not been survivor-centered and are dismayed that OVSJG Director Garcia has done a reversal of the commitments previously made to the community and reduced the requirements of the program to take services for survivors back a decade.”

Though neither the 2019 or 2014 legislation specifically names vertical advocacy, Olds, the SAVRAA independent consultant, notes in her statement that the “model was explicitly endorsed by the City Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, the SAVRAA Task Force, and survivors themselves through their testimony at various public hearings and roundtables about SAVRAA 2014 and 2019.” DCJSC adds that, because the goal of SAVRAA 2019 was to expand a system already in place, it was discussed as if the same model would be expanded too. 

However, the request for applications OVSJG sent out last summer makes no mention of vertical advocacy, calling instead for acute advocacy. The document defines acute as “responding to requests for immediate advocacy services on a 24-hour, year-round basis.” It also points to D.C. Code, but, like with vertical advocacy, language for acute advocacy is not included in the law. Garcia says OVSJG likely used “acute” because they were focused on expanding capacity to meet immediate rights during the initial hospital visits and interaction with law enforcement. 

According to the two grant agreements obtained by City Paper, DC Rape Crisis Center was awarded $412,460 for “SAVRAA Acute Adult Advocacy Response” and NVRDC was awarded $436,863 for “Expanding Access to Advocacy for Survivors of Sexual Assault.” The differing services outlined by the two grantees sparked DCJSC’s concerns. In their letter to Bowser, DCJSC says Garcia informed them the two organizations would split responsibilities for the adult response, with some survivors receiving an advocate for their initial response before a “warm handoff” to another agency for ongoing needs.

In a March 11 letter to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, DCJSC writes the split service model proposed by OVSJG would “lead to disparate services across the advocacy programs.”

They reiterate that message to Bowser, writing: “The point of having a SAVRAA advocate is to ensure consistency throughout a difficult and confusing process, one that isn’t time bound and that takes many forms depending on the individual needs of the survivor. We cannot conceive of any reason that it benefits survivors for half of them to be handed off to another organization.” According to DCJSC, the mayor’s office has been unresponsive.

In her statement, Olds says vertical advocacy can be a logistical challenge. She attempted to accommodate changes to implementation while using a model some organizations and communities still consider to be vertical advocacy. “However, those attempts took us too far afield from the model the District chose, and most importantly, did so in a way that would unduly burden survivors,” she says. 

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, it’s considered best practice for survivors to have the same advocate throughout the reporting process. End Violence Against Women International’s report from 2008, updated in December 2020, says “vertical advocacy clearly represents best practice for the community response to sexual assault.” EVAWI also notes that many communities have strived for vertical advocacy in order to avoid unnecessary trauma and disruption for survivors. The issue is often the lack of resources: “100% vertical advocacy is often impossible, because no single advocate or victim service provider can be on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” the report states. 

Between Oct. 1, 2020 and May 26, 2021, NVRDC advocates responded to 198 hospital cases; of those, nine were handed off to a second advocate. NVRDC says the number of cases that get handed off hovers between 3 and 4 percent. DCRCC did not respond to City Paper’s interview request.

Going forward, Garcia is uncertain if the warm handoff model will be used, but says many rape crisis centers rely on intra-agency handoffs, and some do so with a second provider. “If that is something that will be part of our rollout, our goal is to ensure that that is done to minimize the victims needing to retell their story,” she says. Garcia emphasises that OVSJG is seeking to put together a comprehensive, coordinated response where they can confidently say survivors are getting high quality care and services.

In Garcia’s opinion, vertical and acute advocacy are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive; she argues that what’s important is ensuring survivors have agency. Garcia previously worked as an advocate in Illinois and recalls sitting with one survivor for four hours during the forensic exam and interview with law enforcement. Afterward, the survivor acknowledged Garcia’s support and desire to receive additional services from Garcia’s agency, but said they never wanted to see Garcia again. “So what we’re very careful of is not saying there is only one way to do this, because then that eliminates that choice for victims and survivors,” Garcia says. 

DCJSC rebukes the idea that vertical advocacy takes away survivors’ choices. Instead, they believe there should be a structure in place for a survivor to request a new advocate if desired. “Most of the feedback I’ve gotten from advocates is the person that’s with [survivors] first, is the person, they say ‘Can you stay with me? Because I know you, I’ve already told you my story, I don’t want another person,’” says Jenica Wright, co-lead organizer of DCJSC. 

This sentiment was echoed in survivor testimony shared with the Committee on the Judiciary as recently as May 21. That testimony, provided by DCJSC, was shared with the goal of having vertical advocacy written into D.C. law by including it in the Expanding Supports For Crime Victims Amendment Act of 2021.

Olds recommends explicitly adding vertical advocacy into the existing statute to ensure the preferred method continues regardless of which organizations provide response. 

Meanwhile, OVSJG’s new standards, an outline of which was obtained by City Paper, set a baseline for what providers must offer survivors. Via an email statement, Garcia says: “As we worked with grantees and the SAVRAA Independent Consultant to implement the advocacy expansion codified by SAVRAA of 2019 we realized that the process would be aided by clear definitions and standards of services that reflect our expectations for service delivery as the funder.” According to Garcia, similar standards can be found throughout the country. 

It’s now clarified that all general advocacy (along with crisis intervention, medical advocacy, and systems coordination) must be provided internally by all SAVRAA grantees, meaning no survivor will be handed off from one organization to another for their basic advocacy needs. Additionally, the general advocate is defined as the primary provider for ongoing services. Survivors can, however, receive internal or external referrals for specialized care such as counseling and legal services as needed. OVSJG is meeting with grantees to review and discuss the standards put forth. 

In response to OVSJG’s standards of care, Olds says: “I strongly support the standards of care for SAVRAA advocacy services outlined by OVSJG. They are thorough and thoughtful and will allow multiple organizations to participate in an equal standard of care as recommended by the SAVRAA Task Force. We need to go one small step further and clarify that, wherever possible, the advocate who responded to the initial request for services remains that survivors’ advocate for as long as the survivor wishes.”