Authored By Khnuma Simmonds-Esannason, Executive Director, U.S. Virgin Islands Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC).
As I began to think about the challenges and successes of establishing a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I searched for quotes that could clearly express the importance of persistence as it pertained to developing the SART. Of the hundreds of quotes Google offered, one stood out:
“If Plan A didn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters. Stay Cool.”
Though simple and a bit quirky, it best represents the approach that was taken towards establishing a SART, which is still in its infancy.
The DVSAC, which I’ve headed for the past three years, is the Territorial Coalition for the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a new director, I had a learning curve, and while it didn’t take three years to catch up, it took a few months to understand the role of a State/Territorial Coalition from both the local and national perspective (as they often differ). Furthermore, it took time to establish visibility and credibility as a fairly young agency with a young and new director. As such, stating that the SART process has had its challenges during those years is an understatement!
Prioritizing the needs of survivors can take time, especially in an underserved community that continues to struggle with sensitivity, confidentiality, resources and a host of other challenges that are continuous with “island living”, “diverse traditions” and “cultural dynamics”. Thus, the challenges with development a SART can also be daunting, with some being an:
- Understanding of what had existed in the past, along with the successes and challenges at that time;
- Initiative to utilize the available resources (instead of focusing on what wasn’t), and
- Attitude of persistence and urgency in developing a SART
A process of overcoming challenges, one by one
Prior to my work with DVSAC, the agency had existed for over a decade, and from my discussions with staff and partners as well as my review of meeting notes and documents, I learned that the Territory had made several efforts to formalize a SART.
As with many organizational efforts, there were waves of momentum as well as waves of inactivity throughout those years. Likewise, there seemed to have been groups that organized to discuss “SARTlike” topics such as “Systems Advocacy Meetings,” “Coordinated Response Meetings” and “Sexual Assault Team Meetings.” Still, none had been explicitly identified as a SART, hosted SART Certifications through the Coalition or had a documented history of obtaining, seeking and/or collaborating with local health care or hospital providers and national SARTs.
This information, coupled with the ongoing discussion with partners about the need for a SART, and having also attended and presented for the National Sexual Assault Conference (a critical training opportunity for many teams across the nation), I recognized that to satisfy the desire and need for a SART, my first step was to identify the resources necessary to begin this process.
Resources. Funding. Resources. Funding … unlike the history of a SART in the VI, I have always found information, documentation, minutes and meeting files that have discussed these two factors or lack thereof. In fact, my true introduction to the SART discussion in the VI unfolded somewhat like this:
June 2014: Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA) hosted a Territorial Summit (organized by the Territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, American Samoa and US Virgin Islands) in the US Virgin Islands to discuss violence against women in the Territories. Our VI Team all agreed that there was a need for a SART and decided that we’d start one.
July 2014: crickets sang and birds chirped and a month later, no one had heard of a SART again. As the Coalition Director, however, I decided that DVSAC would take on the role of bringing providers to a meeting to discuss needs and inform us of how we could provide technical assistance.
The turnout was great! Everyone was happy to be present, there was representation from almost every sector, there were robust conversations about how similar groups operated, and the crimes that the Territory was experiencing. There was also “organizational blame” being shared out about the lack of communication that was happening between agencies. But no one offered a definitive agenda, solution or action list from which we could operate. So, I moved from Plan A to Plan B.
A big plus: National Sexual Violence Resource Center tools
August 2014: I took another approach to developing a SART - one that I hoped would offer more structure and effective use of time and organization. I downloaded several documents from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center on starting a SART and found a helpful tool entitled “Planning for a Sexual Assault Response Team.” Once I shared this document with them, we established a tentative timeline:
- Agency Contacts Confirmed: September
- 1st Needs Assessment Completed: October
- Planning Meeting #2/Agency MOUs Completed: November
- Team Officers Selected and Team Vision Completed: December
- Establishing Goals, Action Items and Calendar for 2015: January
September 2014: We received one response from the Department of Human Services team member at the time. But we remained encouraged and rolled out Plan C, which was to send a “friendly reminder” to our team members!
October 2014: We received one additional response from the VI National Guard team member and realized that indeed … we would need a Plan D.
Needless to say, by the end of 2014, we seemed to be back to square one: Committed Team, Valuable Resources, Tentative Timeline but also a loss of momentum and energy to continue. I decided to take a break from the effort but as I continued to speak regularly with partners about the development of a SART, some members suggested that the Coalition (DVSAC) host a SANE Certification Training. I thought that was an excellent idea! Except that when I asked about sharing the cost, somehow those same team members were at a loss for words.
But in recognizing the need for a SART (and understanding that our partners were dedicated despite the lack of finances and resources), and having exhausted our options with plans A C, I figured that a training that would engage our health care providers, provide continuing education for registered nurses, advocates and law enforcement and prepare the Territory for SANE certification, might just be the Plan D needed to revive the effort.
DVSAC began planning for SANE/SART Certification Training from 2015 by incorporating the cost of this training in its fiscal year budget, collaborating with SANESART Online + Clinical and Clinical leadership, engaging health care providers, negotiating training costs, coordinating dates with partners, soliciting local presenters and organizing registration and logistics for a Territorial training occurring between three islands.
Persistence pays off
On Monday, July 18, 2016, DVSAC began its weeklong SANE/SART certification training on St. Croix & St. Thomas to over 14 registered nurses and healthcare providers from the Schneider Regional Medical Center and the Roy Lester Schneider hospital. Also in attendance were learners representing the Virgin Islands Police Department, Bureau of Corrections, Virgin Islands National Guard, Frederiksted Health Clinic and DVSAC for a total of 45 participants. It was an excellent kickoff!
The training, which was made possible through DVSAC”s State/Territory Coalition grant from the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, Sexual Assault Services Program, was facilitated by Dr. Linda Ledray, founder and director of the SANESART Resource Service (SSRS) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women also offered expertise on the mock trial and practice exam portions of the training.
Finally! An official SART training with local nurses, sexual assault experts and community stakeholders.
A Territorial SART
As I draft this blog, DVSAC was continuing its work with community partners to formalize a Territorial Sexual Assault Response Team. In fact, it already had its first team meeting, and healthcare providers have confirmed that they are already reviewing and revamping policies and procedures that can better serve sexual assault survivors. Although the road ahead is lengthy, with much collaboration to be continued and relationships to be strengthened, we are hopeful, energized and motivated - once again!
Many thanks go out to the following local presenters who provided expert information on the work of their fields: Vivian St. Juste of The Family Resource Center, Carolyn Forno of The Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, Sgt. Deborah Jack of the VI Police Department – DV Unit and attorney Vanessa QuinlandHewitt of the Office of the Attorney General. DVSAC also offers thanks in advance to the following organizations who have already expressed a commitment to ensure that our “Plan D” SART is successful: The Resource Sharing Project, The Sexual Assault Justice Center, Dr. Linda Ledray and all of our local partners and service providers.
The Virgin Islands Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council is recognized as the Territorial Coalition by the Office of Violence against Women and the Family Violence Prevention Services Act and their work is towards “Ending Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Through Prevention Education!”. DVSAC aims to promote a healthy Territory by coordinating education and awareness resources that advocate for the elimination of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking and dating violence in the USVI. They promote programs and activities whose purposes are to improve the response of the legal system, service providers, and the media to their issues as well as those that support and promote quality programs that empower victims and rehabilitate their aggressors.
About The Author
Khnuma Simmonds-Esannason is the Executive Director of the VI Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Council, Owner of My Girlfriend’s Closet Boutique & Mother of one. She has reviewed grants for the Department of Justice: Office on Violence against Women, presented for the 2015 & 2016 National Sexual Assault Conference and was honored by the “Heal A Woman To Heal A Nation” Unlimited You Campaign. She holds a B.A. in Communications from Hofstra University and a M.A. in Education Guidance & Counseling from the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix.
For more information on the collaborative partnership between the Virgin Islands Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC), JFL & RLS and/or the SART please call (340) 7190144 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on future training and scholarship opportunities, please request DVSAC Membership information for individuals, families, organizations and corporate stakeholders by emailing email@example.com. Also feel free to “Like” DVSAC at www.facebook.com/vi.dvsac for weekly updates and prevention education resources!