Rising above: Advocates helps sexual assault victims become survivors
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in our eight-part “In Our Shoes” series about sexual assault. You can read the full series here.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The resiliency of the survivors that Marnie Christensen has served is what inspires her to keep facing the nastiest pieces of the human spirit.
Christensen coordinates volunteers and serves as a victim advocate at Advocates of Routt County. Before that, she served for 27 years as a Fort Collins police officer, including eight years as a detective within the crimes against person’s unit — the unit that investigates sexual assault.
As an advocate, and before as a cop, she says she becomes “momma bear” to a victim of sexual assault.
“You become mine. I’m gonna stand in front of you. I’m gonna stand next to you, and when you need it, I’ve got your back,” she said. “Look out.”
In particular, she’ll never forget one victim, a college student who was allegedly raped within her own home. Alongside advocates within the Fort Collin Police Department, Christensen helped find the young woman safe housing so she could continue her education. At one point, she told the victim she would not allow her to drop out of college two months shy of graduation.
A year after the incident, having graduated and moved out of state, the woman returned for her trial, and she lost the case.
“We did lose, yet, she came up afterward and said, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter.’ She gave me the biggest hug,” Christensen said.
“I did it. I faced my demon in that courtroom,” Christensen recalled the woman saying. “I shared my story, and just because not everybody believed me, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
“I said, ‘Good for you, because there’s a lot of us that do,’” Christensen said.
They later learned the jury had been hung, and at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, those who believed her alleged rapist was guilty changed their opinion, hoping he’d be caught when he did it again. He was convicted on other charges soon after, Christensen said.
Those victims who rise above what they’ve been through, who can move past the trauma to find solace as survivors — that’s why she keeps doing what she does.
“You hear so many horror stories. I hear about the worst days in people’s lives, and all the really mean, nasty, ugly things that can happen to people,” Christensen said. “There are days that you’re like, ‘Why do I continue to put myself where I have to see it and hear it?’ and then you get those clients. They’re my why.”
As program director and volunteer coordinator at Advocates, Christensen is one of the people who helps survivors of sexual and domestic violence navigate life after assault.
“One piece of (Advocates) is really to support and empower people who have been impacted by sexual violence and abusive relationships,” Advocates of Routt County Executive Direcotor Lisel Petis said. “We individually serve each one of those people that’s been impacted, but the second piece is our social change advocacy.”
That advocacy aims to change the culture around sexual and domestic violence in Routt County.
The organization’s mission reflects this: “To support and empower all people impacted by sexual violence and abusive relationships while disrupting all systems that tolerate and perpetuate such violence,” according to Petis.
For some survivors, that’s returning to work or school and working to receive any accommodations they might need to feel safe in those places. For others, it’s being connected to a network of survivors online who have been through similar experiences or learning positive coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques to help get through the most overwhelming parts of the day.
If you are in danger and need immediate help, dial 911.
Advocates of Routt County
24-hour crisis line: 970-879-8888
Address: 445 Anglers Drive, Suite 2E
Services: Victim advocacy, social change advocacy, crisis line and safe house for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in Routt County. Advocates can also connect survivors to other resources based on individual needs. Coordinates Healing Circles, a group of survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence that explores tools survivors can use to navigate challenges.
Routt County Department of Human Services
Child abuse and neglect hotline: 970-367-4056
Address: 135 Sixth St.
Services: Provides child and adult protective services, child support services, family preservation, food assistance, self sufficiency and other programs.
Yampa Valley Law and Advocacy Center
Address: 1625 Mid Valley Drive, Suite 1, No. 131
Services: Holistic, pro bono legal representation tailored to legal needs of survivors, including civil protection orders, crime victim compensation, child custody and unexpected events arising after assault. Ability to represent new clients is dependent on caseload and client’s financial, which can be verified at the center’s website.
Colorado Mountain College Title IX Coordinators
Contact: Lisa Doak, CMC Title IX coordinator
Contact: Carolyn Lawrence, associate dean for student affairs at CMC Steamboat Springs
Services: CMC’s Title IX coordinators handle discrimination and sexual misconduct complaints.
Safe2Tell Colorado anonymous reporting
Services: Students can anonymously report anything that concerns or threatens them, their friends, family or community. Reports can be made by phone call, online or on the Safe2Tell smartphone application.
Services: Directory of mental health professionals in the Steamboat Springs area, which can be sorted by specialty areas, such as relationships, stress and coping and mood and depression.
Mind Springs Health
Address: 407 S. Lincoln Ave.
Services: Outpatient counseling and therapy for a wide range of behavioral health problems with services offered on an income-based sliding scale.
Northwest Colorado Health
Address: 940 Central Park Drive, Suite 101
Services: Behavioral health, sexual healthcare to anyone in need, regardless of their ability to pay.
UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center
Address: 1024 Central Park Drive
Services: Via the emergency room, the hospital offers forensic medical exams and other medical care.
Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Office for Victims Programs
Services: Coordinates the Sexual Assault Victim Emergency Payment program, which provides financial assistance to victims submitting a medical or anonymous report who obtain a forensic exam, and the Crime Victims Compensation Program, which can help survivors pay for healthcare expenses, lost wages, loss of support to dependents and other financial burdens from a crime. A victim advocate can help a survivor navigate these programs.
Address: 443 Oak St.
Services: Assistance for immigrant families and limited English speakers in accessing resources for domestic violence, housing and emergency assistance.
Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Services: Directory of local victim advocate organizations in each Colorado judicial district, along with information about reporting options and resources for specific communities, such as Spanish speakers, members of the military and the Deaf Community.
Violence Free Colorado
Services: Statewide directory of domestic violence victim advocate organizations as well as specialized services for communities, such as LGBTQ people, Native Americans and Muslims.
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network
Crisis line: 800-656-HOPE
Services: National organization advocating for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, directory of national resources for survivors of child sex assault, domestic violence, incest, stalking, survivors with disabilities, college students, male survivors, LGBTQ survivors and other survivor communities.
Survivors can also look to their own social networks for support, including communities such as churches, gyms and community organizations.
That support extends to secondary victims, such as parents and children of the person who has been a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. For some family members, it’s difficult to process what has happened to a loved one and hard to see evidence and hear testimony in court. An advocate can provide emotional support for them, too.
The organization serves every corner of Routt County.
Advocates who speak English, Spanish and Mandarin are available, and the organization partners with Integrated Community to find translators for survivors who speak another language. They provide services to anybody who needs them, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
As an independent community organization, Advocates of Routt County’s victim advocates are not allowed to testify about any kind of communication between them and the victim under Colorado state law, meaning an advocate will only testify or tell law enforcement what a victim tells them if the victim requests it. Christensen said this confidentiality is similar to attorney-client privilege.
Running interference for survivors
Christensen talks about this empowerment like she’s on the same football team as a victim — an advocate runs interference.
“There’s a whole bunch of these little things that we can share ideas and come up with possible solutions and run some of the interference when they’re feeling overwhelmed,” she said. “And everything can really easily become overwhelming. Sometimes, they’re jumping out to the big picture, and maybe, my job is (to say) ‘Let’s break this down. We can’t do anything about this right now. This we don’t have to worry about for two weeks. This we don’t have to worry about until Friday. Let’s focus on this, and tomorrow, we can do this and this. Then I’m going to call you tomorrow afternoon, and then we can do the next steps.’ A lot of times it’s just breaking it down, so it’s not so overwhelming.”
Every survivor has different needs. There is a swath of resources available, but a good starting place to get connected to those resources is to contact Advocates.
This starts with the first call. An advocate will meet wherever the survivor is — the hospital, at someone’s home, the police station or sheriff’s office. Once a survivor is safe, an advocate can explain and help them decide the best option to report what happened, if a survivor wants to report.
If the assault happened within the last week, an advocate will encourage them to go to the hospital to receive a medical and forensic exam, which both checks for injuries and can preserve evidence should a case go to trial. An advocate can attend the exam and offer emotional support.
In Our Shoes is an eight-part series about sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County published by the Steamboat Pilot every Wednesday, from June 5 to July 24.
If a survivor reports to law enforcement, Christensen or another advocate can help prepare them for the interview, and Christensen’s background means she likely knows the answers to questions a survivor may have about the law enforcement interview.
She knows it can be intimidating, particularly in Routt County, where survivors — most frequently women — are being asked to explain the intimate, sexual details of the worst day of their lives to a male detective.
Then, there are all the things between the assault and the possibility of a trial: talking to friends and loved ones about the assault; finding safety at home, work and school; tackling court hearings; and finding ways to feel in control of their lives.
She’ll help a survivor figure out who they can trust and who is a safe person to talk about the assault with.
“Maybe they don’t have anybody right now,” Christensen said. “Well, you’ve got me.”
She’ll set up multiple meetings with a survivor and make sure they have access to Advocates’ 24-hour crisis line at 970-879-8888.
“If you wake up at 2:30 in the morning and you can’t go back to sleep because you’re having flashbacks, you call our crisis line because you’ll get somebody that is going to understand,” she said. “You don’t have to give your entire story again, but they’re going to talk to you, and they’re going to help you through it.”
Advocates can connect survivors to safe housing, be it one night at a hotel or a stay in the organization’s confidential safe house, which is open to families with children and anybody fleeing sexual or domestic violence, no matter their gender.
Advocates will work to help survivors feel safe in other realms, too. Christensen said, as an advocate, she can prepare survivors to talk to their company’s human resources department about something that happened in the workplace, or she can run interference and talk to them on behalf of the survivor.
For students, Title IX requires schools and colleges make reasonable accommodations for a victim when someone is accused of sexual harassment or assault.
“If you’re sitting in the classroom and the person who sexually assaulted you is sitting right behind you in class every single day, you’re probably not going to deal well with that, and victim/survivors don’t. You’re not going to feel safe anymore,” Christensen said.
Advocates can also help survivors navigate programs that help victims pay for the health care they receive, sometimes including counseling or therapy, and to repair property damage that might have occurred during an assault.
As a case works through the judicial system, an advocate can assist by explaining rights, attending meetings with the District Attorney’s Office, updating victims as their case progresses through these hearings and standing in for the victim at court dates before trial.
“Court never goes — investigation, DA’s office, charges, arrest, trial,” Christensen said. “It can be months, and occasionally even years, before a case goes to trial, and in between that, there are all kinds of other hearings that can occur during that process. The victim doesn’t have to go to those hearings. As a matter of fact, frequently, we advise that they don’t go.”
If a victim is in the audience, a defense attorney can call on them to answer questions — building a case against them before the trial has even begun. An advocate can sit in their place to follow the proceedings and update the victim after.
Once a case goes to trial, an advocate can work with the DA to help the victim prepare to testify, touring the courtroom beforehand and considering what questions and tactics they might face from defense attorneys.
And after a trial, Christensen or another advocate can help survivors as they find their way through what’s next. Even years after an assault, the idea of regular medical care, such as a mammogram, pelvic exam or regular dental cleaning, can be difficult for a survivor. It can remind them of the trauma of the assault or of the discomfort of the forensic exam. Advocates can be there with a hand to hold, a pep talk or to help a survivor figure out how to tell medical professionals they need to ask for clear permission to touch them — whatever the survivor needs.
“These are healthy steps you have control of,” Christensen said.
Advocates was founded in 1983 as Advocates Against Battering and Abuse by community members who sought to lead a grassroots nonprofit to advocate against domestic violence in Routt County, Petis wrote in an email to Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Since that time, the services the organization provides have slowly grown to include support for victims of sexual violence, a 24-hour crisis line and the safe house. The name of the nonprofit eventually changed to Advocates Building Peaceful Communities and in 2018, to Advocates of Routt County.
Last year, Petis took the reins as executive director, following Diane Moore, who served as the organization’s director since helping found it 35 years prior.
Petis said the organization is now seeking funding to develop its services for children and its social change advocacy program. A lower priority is funding a staff counselor or therapist to provide in-house support for survivors.
“One of the big things that we’re trying to get funds for right now is a child abuse advocate,” she said.
She explained the organization currently works with teens who are victims of sexual assault or teen dating violence.
“But we see a real need for work with either secondary victims who are children, so, for example, a kid who is in a home where domestic violence is going on, as well as primary victims, so somebody who has been the victim of child sexual assault,” Petis said.
That would include having a staff advocate with training and experience working with children and space for kids to play and talk to an advocate when they visit the Advocates office with a parent.
As a whole, Advocates is working to make sure people from all backgrounds feel welcome in their spaces.
Petis said the organization also hopes to expand its social change program, which began in October 2018. The program connects agencies involved in responding to sexual assault and domestic violence and provides educational presentations about preventing sexual assault to local schools and businesses.
“We’ve had so many requests from the schools and local businesses,” Petis said. “We’ve had a really positive response from the community, but we’re absolutely at max capacity with what we have right now for staffing.”
Ultimately, Petis hopes to build a community that will not tolerate sexual violence.
“Our real goal is to create a zero-tolerance atmosphere in Steamboat for sexual assault or domestic violence, where people truly don’t even believe they could get away with, so they won’t come here to do it,” she said.
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