Amanda Weisbrod

One coalition has been giving power back to survivors of sexual assault in Union and Wallowa counties since 2004.

The Sexual Assault Response Team, otherwise known as SART, was formed in the early 2000s to provide a resource the area sorely lacked — a network of victim advocates, law enforcement representatives and sexual assault nurse examiners (or SANEs for short) dedicated to helping survivors in whatever capacity asked of them.

Providing a multi-disciplinary approach to empowering victims, the SART coalition consists of Shelter From the Storm, a Union County organization providing support for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the Union County District Attorney’s Office, La Grande Police Department, Union County Sheriff’s Office, Eastern Oregon University and Grande Ronde Hospital.

According to Krista Evans, a crisis response advocate at Shelter From the Storm, SART services, which are offered 24 hours a day for people ages 15 and older, include advocacy, medical examinations and reports to law enforcement.

Evans said while a survivor may opt into any combination of these services, no matter what the individual chooses, SART advocates, SANEs and law enforcement will back the decision.

“We want to put it out there that the whole purpose of us providing advocacy is to support a survivor in whatever choices they want to make,” she said. “We respect their autonomy and we respect our survivors to make their decisions on their own.”

Survivors themselves, or friends and family members of a survivor, can call or text the SART crisis hotline at 541-963-9261 any time to discuss their situation with an advocate. Even outside of Shelter From the Storm’s business hours, a victim advocate from the Union County District Attorney’s Office is on call.

Valerie Schlichting, victim assistance program director at the DA’s office, said SART advocates try their best to respond quickly to calls regardless of the hour.

“We’ll get up in the middle of the night and go to Shelter From the Storm, open it up, and sometimes the victims meet us there,” she said. “We’re involved as much as (victims) want us to be.… Really, it’s educating them and making sure they’re aware of every option that they have and then helping them make that choice.”

In addition to being on call after hours, Schlichting said the DA’s office is responsible for generally overseeing the coalition and holding monthly meetings with representatives from each participating entity. Whereas Shelter From the Storm leads most of SART’s work with survivors and services, the DA’s office focuses its energy on education, sexual assault awareness and providing survivors with information on their rights and options when handling a case. Schlichting said the opportunity to have a variety of organizations come together to help sexual assault survivors is helpful in more ways than one.

“We can put our heads together and decide what resources we need to reach out to, what this person might need, and make sure that they are covered,” she said. “If you don’t have that, then you have someone who’s going to each different place to get their services... so having a group of people who are looking out for their interests and providing resources really is the best approach.”

When asked about the importance of the relationship between the organizations involved with SART, Evans had a similar response.

“I think any time you have a coordinated response between community members, it provides us an opportunity to build a strong foundation and communicate well with each other and streamline processes,” Evans said. “Survivors don’t have to wait hours for things to get coordinated. Our response can be relatively quick depending on survivors’ wants and needs.”

SART isn’t unique to Union County, however. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center developed a toolkit in 2011 to help communities across the U.S. and U.S. territories customize their SART outreach and expand services, according to the organization’s website at www.nsvrc.org.

The NSVRC website defines SARTs as “multidisciplinary, interagency teams that promote collaboration to support victims of sexual assault and hold offenders accountable,” and traces their formation in the U.S. to more than 30 years ago.

“By nature, SARTs are unique to their local circumstances but share three core goals: supporting victims, holding offenders accountable, and increasing community safety,” the website states. “Over time, most SARTs face challenges and identify gaps in services that require working to change systems. The most successful SARTs work to improve systems toward these three common goals.”

Rianna Bridge, a victim advocate at the Union County District Attorney’s office, said she thinks it’s very important Union and Wallowa counties have their own localized SART services to give survivors a chance to come forward and heal if they so choose.

“With it being such a rural community, being able to have these services accessible to everyone is really important because not every county has a resource like this,” Bridge said. “If we didn’t have this service, people would be traveling to Baker County or Pendleton.”

Shelter From the Storm is in a unique position as it holds the only in-house victim examination room in the state, according to Evans. She said by doing the exams in the office, Shelter From the Storm hopes “it’ll be less traumatic and more survivor centered.”

Schlichting agrees having an exam room on site allows Shelter From the Storm to provide wraparound care to victims of sexual assault, making their healing process as void of trauma as possible.

“The biggest thing for victims is that they be able to have somewhere that’s safe to them, and it’s not necessarily an institutionalized place like a hospital,” she said. “Victims who come forward have just been through a really traumatic thing in their life, and they want to feel safe and supported and surrounded in services — that’s what Shelter From the Storm provides.”

See complete story in Friday's Observer

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