Employees in IU’s Office of Sexual Violence Prevention and Victim Advocacy (SVPVA) can typically be found in the Health Center, working on sexual violence prevention programming, event planning, and other initiatives to work towards empowering students while preventing sexual violence. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of that work has turned virtual, which creates new challenges for everyone involved.
SVPVA Associate Director Sally Thomas, alongside the rest of her team, has been hard at work since the beginning of the pandemic to rework roles in SVPVA that were forced to become virtual. SVPVA is home to Confidential Victim Advocates (CVAs) who work with sexual assault survivors to handle financial concerns, academic concerns, resources for students, and other various needs. CVAs have noticed changes in the students they work with since the pandemic surfaced.
“The students that we work with are all coming to us with trauma,” Thomas said. “Living in a pandemic is a trauma in itself. Seeing that has really escalated client needs. A lot more anxiety, a lot more depression, and that’s completely understandable.”
Additionally, staff members have begun to work remotely, which adds a new set of challenges to a community that is based on face-to-face interactions. Thomas and her coworkers are adjusting to the new work environment, but they are missing the physical encounters with students.
“It has been a struggle for the staff to work remotely,” Thomas said. “We thrive off of that human interaction. It’s encouraging and we love sitting down with students and having conversations with them. It’s just a little bit of a different feel being remote.”
In regards to case numbers, SVPVA has not seen an increase overall in sexual assault cases, which could be tied to fewer social events taking place due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, there has been an increase in domestic violence cases.
“We have seen an increase in domestic violence and dating violence cases,” Thomas said. “They’re a little bit more extreme. We are seeing that increase in violence. We are attributing it to higher anxiety in perpetrators, but also that isolation.”
Restrictions placed on gatherings by Monroe County and Indiana University have made students hesitant to report instances of sexual violence, due to fear of punishment. Thomas, as well as the other SVPVA staff members, want students to know that this should not be a reason to not seek help.
“We have had a lot of students afraid to come forward and even meet with us, because they were not socially distancing,” Thomas said. “My office is confidential. We don’t care if you didn’t have a mask on. We don’t care if you weren’t socially distancing. That should not be a deterrent to coming to speak to us.”
The work done by the Office of Sexual Violence Prevention and Victim Advocacy is crucial to protecting and supporting students. The pandemic has not only escalated the importance of this work, but also made the conditions that much more difficult. Staff members like Thomas will continue to work hard in adjusting to these new times and to provide a safe space for students no matter what.
Confidential Victim Advocates
Sexual Assault Crisis Center