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What Should I Say to a Survivor Who Seeks Support?

For Advocates

Survivors who are seeking your support likely did not come to this decision easily. They may feel powerless because of a lack of knowledge of their rights, options, and resources, or simply overwhelmed by the experience they have undergone. It is often necessary to get assistance from someone familiar with the systems and resources. An advocate can provide that assistance.

Advocacy is a term and process taken from the legal model. It is defined as “one who pleads the cause for another,” as in individual advocacy, or “one who argues for, defends, maintains, or recommends a cause or proposal,” as in the case of political advocacy.

Being an advocate is not the same as being a counselor/therapist. Advocates provide information and support so survivors can access resources and systems to help them in their healing process. Advocates receive specialized training, but are not necessarly mental health specialists. The role of a counselor or therapist is to help the client, or in this case the survivor, process their trauma; this can be very important for many survivors during their healing process.

Your role as an advocate is to provide in-the-moment emotional support, psycho-education, and appropriate referrals. Your role as an advocate is not to provide therapy nor to have someone fully process their trauma with you, as this could leave the person in a vulnerable state.

To learn more about suggested language to use, phrasing suggestions and question framing, refer to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s (CCASA’s) Sexual Assault Advocacy and Crisis Line Training Guide, chapter 5, pp. 16-24

For Law Enforcement

Times exist in all of our lives when we must face a problem that seems too difficult to face alone. We may feel powerless because of a lack of knowledge of our rights, options, and resources, or simply overwhelmed emotionally by the experience we have undergone.

As a law enforcement officer (with assistance from victim advocates either in your agency or in your community), you can shed light on some of the complicated processes involved in reporting a sexual assault to the police. Survivors need support from someone who is familiar with and has authority within the system. Your support can be critical to survivors.

Survivors seeking a medical forensic exam may be in crisis and/or will still be feeling the effects of their trauma.

When you ask questions, explain why you are asking them. For example, explain the reason you are asking about alcohol use. Questions such as this are important but you want to minimize the likelihood of the survivor feeling as though you are blaming them for drinking.

To learn more about suggested language to use, phrasing suggestions, and trauma-informed interview techniques, visit the Ending Violence Against Women International resource library and/or the International Association of Chiefs of Police Response to Violence Against Women resource library for a wealth of information aimed at assisting law enforcement in their work with survivors of sexual assault.

It is useful to use a crisis management process when interacting with a survivor. A crisis management process can include some of the below elements.

Build rapport and work on developing a relationship

Identify the issue that needs to be addressed

Process and problem solving

Resources and Referrals

Summarize and Close

Building rapport is central to establishing a strong, trusting, and productive relationship:

  • Offer validation and comfort
  • Use survivor’s correct pronouns and name
  • Speak in a calm voice
  • Slow down the pace
  • Be okay with silence. Communication includes allowing silences and/or long pauses. Often survivors need time to think, reflect, get grounded, or just get in touch with their feelings. The advocate may need to clarify by saying statements like, “It’s alright not to talk. Take your time.”
  • Let the survivor know that it is okay to go slow, to cry, or to repeat themselves, etc.
  • Ask open-ended questions

You can also use “door openers” when you are establishing rapport or if the interaction feels “stuck” later. These are invitations to the survivor to talk or say more:

  • “If you would like to talk, I am here.”
  • “I’d be interested in what you are able to say.”
  • “I’d really like to hear what you’re thinking and interested in sharing.”
  • “How would you feel talking about it?”
  • “Sounds like you have some feelings/thoughts about this.”
  • “How do you feel about that?”