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County supervisors OK $5M more to help victims of gender-based violence

Supervisor Cindy Chavez: 'We spent less than $1 million to provide services to victims.'

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to earmark $5 million in annual, ongoing funding to help survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, calling it an overdue investment to help thousands of victims in the county each year.

The funding would be sent to the nonprofits and public agencies that form the county's existing — albeit strained — network of support services to address gender-based violence, which includes a complex mix of medical treatment and exams, law enforcement and social services. Supervisors also requested that grants be flexible so survivors can be served regardless of the cause of the trauma.

Across nearly every metric, members of Santa Clara County's Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) have seen a significant increase in the number of victims seeking services. The number of sexual assault forensic exams handled by the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center increased from 290 in 2016 to 421 in 2018 and is on pace to grow a staggering 35% this year, while the District Attorney's Office is now reviewing well over 1,000 sexual assault cases annually.

The county's direct spending on gender-based violence programs has been paltry despite the rising needs, and the $5 million represents a long-overdue investment to help the thousands of primarily women and children who are victims of abuse, said board member Cindy Chavez, who helped spearhead the budget referral.

"We're a $7 billion enterprise and we spent less than $1 million to provide services to victims," Chavez said at a recent committee meeting. "That's just appalling, and even as I say that number it's hard to even imagine that's true, but it is."

Erin O'Brien, CEO of the nonprofit Community Solutions, said there is a dearth of funding for survivor services outside of the county's jail, hospital and prosecutorial systems, and that the county needs to step up its role in addressing what she called a "war on women" across the country. Jennifer Kelleher Cloyd of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley said her office sees the results of the systematic failure by the county to serve victims of sexual assault, human trafficking and intimate partner violence.

"We see generations of families entering foster care, we see homelessness and we see symptoms and struggles of lifelong mental health often resulting from trauma at the hands of sexual assault," she said.

Michelle Torres, identifying herself as a sexual assault survivor, told the Board of Supervisors that she struggled to find help and the services she did find were sparse at best. The lingering effects of the assault have taken a toll on her, she said.

"I am a strong woman, and this one action has changed me to the cellular level," Torres said, describing how she was afraid to leave her house and felt like a prisoner within herself.

"And to think of all the women who go through this, and children who have to go through this and don't have the capacity to communicate what they're feeling — it just kills me inside," she said.

Assisting victims of sexual assault has transformed into a major policy goal for the county over the last year, including plans to expand access to forensic exams — also known as rape kits — from one centralized location at Valley Medical Center to three. One is planned for the North County region in a yet-to-be-determined location, and the expansion will come with an expensive investment in additional staffing. The goal is to bring down wait times and reduce how far victims have to travel for exams.

State laws mandate that every sexual assault survivor has a legal right to receive services from an "advocate" employed by a rape crisis center, whose job is to guide victims through the traumatic process immediately following a sexual assault, including crisis counseling and information on their rights. For cities from Palo Alto to San Jose, those services are provided by the YWCA of Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that currently receives no money from the county.

Linh Tran Phuong, YWCA's crisis intervention coordinator, said YWCA provided 607 in-person responses in the 2017-18 year, half of which involved a forensic exam, and that the nonprofit has barely kept up with the growing demand.

"I ask the county to ensure that rape crisis centers are adequately funded," she said. "We're not complaining, it's just that is what our legal mandate is. Every time a SART partner or a community agency calls us for an in-person response, we must not fail to go."

Jennie Richardson, a member of the political action group Enough is Enough, told the county's Health and Hospital Committee in February that she had been raped and spent eight hours at Valley Medical Center waiting for her exam. The lengthy delay involved arguing with police to get them to call for an advocate and giving up her waiting room to a child victim. She was given the option to wait in the hallway or a "literal closet" for the remaining hour.

"I can't overstate the importance of having the advocates available for victims of sexual assault," Richardson said. "It was an incredibly difficult experience to be there and I can't imagine that many people would sit there and wait that entire time without leaving."

"If we want sexual assault to be taken seriously then we need to ensure that advocates are available to victims," she said.

Board members also voted Tuesday to put together a community stakeholder process to decide how best to prioritize the $5 million investment. County staff compiled a list of 50 recommendations to improve sexual assault responses based on feedback to date, but did not rank them or put a dollar amount on any of the items.

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Kevin Forestieri writes for the Mountain View Voice, the sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

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