Physical and Sexual Abuse on Rise in Bradford County
The Abuse and Rape Crisis Center (ARCC) in Towanda will conduct a training course for new volunteers from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday to Thursday, May 3 to 5, and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 7. According to ARCC direct services supervisor and volunteer coordinator Robin Shaffer, at least 15 new volunteers are needed to help the agency accommodate a caseload that has grown dramatically in the past year, with instances of abuse against children alone nearly doubling in the last six months for which statistics are available.
From July 2010 to January 2011, ARCC reported 25 new cases of abuse of children, compared to a total of 23 instances between July 2009 and June 2010. The agency also cited 75 new cases of sexual and physical abuse of adults from July 2010 to January 2011.
ARCC children’s advocate Erika Steele grabbed the attention of more than a few of the attendees at the April 7 Bradford County Commissioners’ meeting when she made a presentation that included alarming statistics and asked the commissioners to acknowledge April as “Sexual Awareness Month and Child Abuse Awareness Month,” which they did promptly. She also read a heart-wrenching account of sexual abuse written by a young Bradford County woman.
Commissioner Doug McLinko asked Steele to what the agency attributed the increase in abuse reports, prompting her suggestion that the rise in the number of cases is related to the influx of new people to the county.
“It’s alarming,” McLinko conceded, before expressing his gratitude on the part of the commissioners and the public for the work that Steele and ARCC have done for area school districts and the community.
“Part of it is an increase in population. We do have new children in the area,” Shaffer concurred in reference to Steele’s public remarks. A heightened awareness of sexual abuse among school students via ARCC programs might also be bringing more cases to the surface. Shaffer attributes much of the increase, however, to a general escalation of exposure of children and young adults to sexually graphic and violent video games, television programs, and even commercials.
“Unfortunately, I believe that our population has become more violent,” said Shaffer, who began her association with ARCC as a volunteer. “Our volunteers are active. They are the backbone of our agency.”
ARCC employees and volunteers staff a 24-hour abuse/assault hotline, which maintains a direct connection to 911 services. The agency provides counseling for victims of sexual abuse and assault, transportation to and from legal proceedings, legal advocacy, and accompaniment to related medical appointments. In addition to crisis intervention, ARCC provides programs on domestic violence and personal safety to the public, as well as children’s programs, support groups, information and referrals, and advocacy with police agencies, hospitals, legislators, and other social service agencies.
“We stay with them from the beginning to the end (of each client’s ordeal) and sometimes beyond that until (he or she) feels empowered to make decisions and no longer feels fearful,” said Shaffer. None of ARCC’s staff are qualified to offer legal council, as a lawyer would do, but they are well-versed in domestic relations and will accompany parents to child support hearings or help a victim of abuse obtain a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order.
ARCC also maintains a shelter in an undisclosed location, where up to eight abuse victims at a time can stay for as many as 30 days. ARCC staff members and associates work feverishly during that month to procure services and transitional housing for clients, but they stop short of making choices for them.
“We cannot tell them what to do,” Shafer asserted. “We help them to make informed decisions, and we support them in whatever decisions they make.”
Most of ARCC’s services are provided free of charge via the generosity of larger agencies such as the PA Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the PA Coalition Against Rape, the Victims of Crime Associations, The United Way, and from private donors, the latter for which Shaffer is especially grateful.
“We’re very lucky that we still have people who donate,” she stated.
In addition to helping with the hotline, duties of volunteers may include assisting with support groups for victims or providing counseling for abusers who end up in prison. Due to an influx of workers of Hispanic descent to the area, ARCC is particularly in need of bilingual volunteers. Currently, only one of ARCC’s nine full-time and two part-time employees speaks Spanish, and she is usually involved in school programs. The agency is also seeking sponsors of a Spanish language course that ARCC volunteers and employees can master at their leisure.
“It’s a large commitment,” Shaffer said of time and energy volunteers put into their work for the agency, “but some people find that this is something that they can become passionate about.”
Although the majority of ARCC’s staff and volunteer force is comprised of women, men have filled vital roles in the past and are encouraged to register for the upcoming volunteer training course. Applicants will be invited for an interview, after which state police and child abuse clearances will be sought prior to enrollment in the course. For more information, interested readers may call 570-265-5333.