FREEPORT — Executive Director Melanie Sachs said 100 percent of calls fielded Sept. 27 by Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine referenced the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Sachs, who is also a Freeport town councilor, took a minute during the Oct. 2 council meeting to encourage anyone feeling “overwhelm(ed)” by the proceedings to reach out to Portland-based SARSSM.
“We were busy all day,” she said in an Oct. 8 interview, noting that the “intensity of the calls” weren’t unlike what SARSSM hears every day. What was unusual, Sachs said, was the mention of the hearing.
“Many said it brought up significant feelings of when they weren’t believed … when they were shamed … when somebody didn’t take them seriously despite lots of evidence to the contrary,” Sachs said.
SARSSM is a 43-year-old agency – one of seven in the state – that provides free, confidential services to victims of sexual assault: an anonymous 24-hour crisis and support line, a range of support groups, education programs, and one-on-one support with an advocate from the agency’s Sexual Assault Response Team.
Three weeks ago the nation watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, recounting a 1982 party where she was allegedly sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh adamantly denied the claims.
Ford’s testimony was met with an outpouring of support and empathy from survivors of sexual assault, many of whom said they were inspired by Ford and felt compelled to tell their personal accounts.
On social media, #WhyIDidntReport began trending almost immediately after President Donald Trump questioned Ford’s credibility by saying that if the attack “was as bad as she says,” she or her parents would have reported it when it happened more than 30 years ago.
Those rallying around the hashtag highlighted the barriers that often stand in the way of survivors coming forward: disbelief, shame, fear or anger.
“There are plenty of reasons (not to report). It’s incredibly individual,” Sachs said. “… I’ve had people call me 20 years after an event, and that’s an honor.”
Still, Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 50-48 — almost entirely along party lines. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a 45-minute floor speech that voting against Kavanaugh without witnesses or proof of allegations could set a “dangerous” precedent.
Sachs called the rationale behind Collins’ vote “disingenuous” and “baseless,” noting that there’s scientific evidence that says 100 percent of cases in which an assailant is misidentified happens when the victim has never met the actual assailant.
“For Sen. Collins to say, ‘I believe Dr. Ford up to this point, but then I don’t believe that she can identify her assailant’… is junk science,” Sachs said.
Collins’ statements, Sachs said, put in “stark relief” the “ongoing shaming and disbelief” of victims of sexual assault when they come forward.
“The outrage and disgust should be aimed at the act of sexual assault, not the survivors,” Sachs said. “For me, viscerally, that is the important piece. My biggest concerns were about how survivors were treated.”
Still, Sachs said she hopes the outcry of support following Ford’s testimony is a step toward acknowledging a “true public health epidemic” that is sexual violence.
“It doesn’t matter if it happened 10 minutes ago, 10 years ago or 50 years ago,” Sachs said. “SARSSM is very willing and able to help.”
From October 2016 to October 2017, SARSSM saw a 300 percent increase in requests for meetings with a Sexual Assault Response Team advocate.
This came just before the dozens of women came forward to accuse American film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault over a period of at least 30 years, which eventually led to the #MeToo movement.
Although Sachs said she can’t say definitively if the political climate in the past three years has played a role in the increased demand for services SARSSM has seen, she said the hotline received a 56 percent jump in calls from 2016-2017.
“These are truths that we’ve lived with for many years,” she said. “This is a public health epidemic.”
If nothing else, Sachs said she hopes the discussions spurred by Kavanaugh’s confirmation are “more than a moment, but a movement.”
“I can only hope that somebody is watching and thinking ‘I’m going to do better,’ whether they’re a male, female, non-binary,” she said. “I don’t think you can put the lid back on it.”
Melanie Sachs said Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine has grown by about a third to 16 employees since she became executive director in 2016, and she could easily use at least five more positions to meet demand.
Sachs said SARSSM relies heavily on volunteers, and training sessions are scheduled for Oct. 29 and 31 from 5-9 p.m.; Nov. 3 and 17 from 8 a.m.- 5 p.m., and Nov. 5, 7, 12 and 14 from 5-9 p.m. Contact Bridget Mancini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-1035 ext. 108 to sign up.
To learn more about SARSSM and its services, visit www.sarsonline.org/. For 24-hour support, call 800-871-7741.
— Jocelyn Van Saun
Freeport Town Councilor Melanie Sachs said 100 percent of calls on Sept. 27 to Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, where she is executive director, referenced Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.