In the era of the #MeToo movement, Santa Clara County has seen a rising number of domestic violence and sexual assault victims coming forward seeking help.
And for survivors here in the North County, it largely falls on one nonprofit -- YWCA Silicon Valley -- to provide a helping hand. From assistance during the forensic exam immediately following a rape to housing to get away from an abusive relationship, YWCA's staff members are ready to aid hundreds of people seeking emergency assistance each year.
YWCA fills an irreplaceable role in the majority of Santa Clara County, serving as the only rape crisis center from San Jose to Palo Alto. Every sexual assault survivor has a legal right to receive services from an "advocate" employed by a rape crisis center. These advocates are on call and are dispatched to assist in medical exams that take place at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
YWCA CEO Tanis Crosby said the 17 advocates hired by YWCA play multiple roles, assisting survivors with crisis counseling and information on their legal rights and guiding them through what is a "very scary" process in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault.
"Their role is to be there for what the survivor needs," Crosby said. "The survivor has experienced a dehumanizing, horrific act -- they've experienced significant trauma."
All told, YWCA provided a range of medical, legal and counseling services to 951 people in 2017 and took 826 calls at its 24-hour crisis call center. Along with these emergency services, YWCA also provided sexual assault prevention education initiatives that reached nearly 10,000 people, according to the nonprofit's website.
YWCA is also one of seven nonprofit organizations serving Mountain View residents that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations to the fund are divided equally among the nonprofits and are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at no cost, so 100 percent of contributions go to the recipients.
It hasn't been easy for YWCA to keep up with the demand. The latest estimates are that the "medical accompaniment requests" are expected to rise by 30 percent from 2015 to 2018, representing a "significant" jump without a commensurate increase in funding. State funding provided to YWCA is not adjusted for the area's cost of living, and the organization isn't getting a helping hand from Santa Clara County.
"Currently, no resources from the County of Santa Clara are provided to the YWCA to deliver these services, to what sexual assault survivors have the legal right to access," according to an October letter from YWCA to county officials.
It's difficult to determine whether the increasing demand comes from more victims coming forward or an uptick in sexual crimes, but it's likely a combination of both, Crosby said. Anecdotally, she said the medical exams are revealing a heightened level of violence and injuries in recent cases, and that there are a greater number of cases that involve both domestic violence and sexual assault.
One big problem county officials are hoping to tackle in 2019 is the lack of availability of forensic exams, known as rape kits, throughout Santa Clara County. The only location to perform them is at Valley Medical Center, although the goal is to open up additional locations at Stanford University and in Gilroy sometime next year. At a Health and Hospital Committee meeting in October, Supervisor Joe Simitian said it's important to have a convenient and comfortable location for survivors to go for an exam.
"If you're in Mountain View, Valley Medical Center may seem very remote, very unfamiliar. If you're in Gilroy, same story," Simitian said. "Folks who have already been traumatized in an extraordinary way are essentially being retraumatized, or that trauma is being compounded, by pulling them away from familiar surroundings, friends, families -- just geography, frankly."
If the county succeeds, it will fall upon YWCA to provide the advocates and array of support services needed by survivors of sexual assault at the future North County clinic, which had members of the nonprofit's leadership -- as well as advocates with hands-on experience with victims -- making a clear case that the nonprofit needs resources to meet the demand that will likely come with the expansion.
Linh Tran-Phuong, YWCA's crisis intervention coordinator, told members of the committee that survivors in Santa Clara County are feeling empowered to come forward and exercise their rights, and that she has watched the number of advocates dispatched increase rapidly from two or three per week to over 10. It isn't a sudden surge, she said, it's a consistent increase following the #MeToo movement and better information.
"We have eight advocates in total responding to sexual assault forensic exams," she said. "We need more funding, we need more assistance and we need the county to let survivors know that, when they come forward, we stand with them."
As of last week, it still wasn't clear what YWCA was going to get in the way of resources following the clinic expansion. Crosby said she supported the county's goal of tripling its forensic exam locations, and that a strengthened partnership with the county is still in the works.
"One of our hopes and goals in the coming months is to continue to work closely with the county to create a kind of seamless, high-quality support for survivors," she said. "This is a very big deal -- rather than driving to San Jose and waiting for hours on end, the hope is that there will be an opportunity to have a medical exam for sexual assault right there in the community."
Beyond the essential advocacy services, Crosby said the biggest unmet need is shelter and housing for victims. The nonprofit provides emergency shelter beds for victims at an undisclosed location in the North County area, which is consistently filled to the brim and supports hundreds of women and their families. Staff and volunteers at the nonprofit are also always on the lookout to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault find permanent supportive housing. Crosby said YWCA is seeking to launch homeless prevention services, adding to the already broad list of programs provided in-house by the nonprofit.
YWCA is seeing increased demand for legal services at the Family Justice Center in Sunnyvale, which provides everything from immigration services and visa applications to restraining orders, law enforcement support and limited legal representation. Based on early numbers for 2018, demand has doubled since the justice center opened its doors four years ago.
"Survivors are reaching out to the YWCA in record numbers," Crosby said in an October interview with the Voice. "That's good. We are here for survivors, we believe survivors, we are here for you 24/7. And it means that we need to raise more funds to deliver services."