KANSAS CITY, Mo. — April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but one Kansas City metro organization works year round to support survivors, combat myths surrounding sexual assault and prevent these cases from happening altogether.
The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, also known as MOCSA, has served as a rape crisis center since 1975.
"We support people who are in the aftermath of a sexual assault," Victoria Pickering, MOCSA's director of advocacy, said. "We support them when they're at the hospital during an exam, working with law enforcement and going to court."
MOCSA also provides free counseling services to survivors of sexual violence, as well as their loved ones, according to Pickering.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in three women and one in four men experience some form of contact-sexual violence in their lifetimes. In Kansas, more than 5,300 people received services for sexual assault last year.
Pickering said in many cases, men and women are harmed by someone they know, which could be one of several reasons victims never come forward.
"I think the number one myth that exists around sexual violence is that it is something that happens at the hands of a stranger," Pickering said, "but we do know that the vast majority of survivors of sexual violence were harmed by someone that they know or someone that they love.
"Often this is a type of violence that is caused by someone a survivor trusts and cares for. So, we start to understand why a survivor may be concerned or worried about telling their family about what happened, and that it can take a long time to report to law enforcement."
While MOCSA supports survivors and their relatives, the group also focuses on changing the public's response to cases involving sexual assault. Its website includes the Start By Believing campaign as a resource. It suggests being supportive, asking how to help and avoiding "why" questions, which can come across as accusatory.
Kathy Ray, director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence (KCSDV), said accountability has to be shifted "back to the offender.
"For so long, we've been asking questions like, 'What was she wearing? What were they doing? Why were they there? They should have known better,'" Ray said.
Shifting the accountability is why Pickering said she believes the public has to learn how to respond differently to those who say they've been assaulted.
"When our friend tells us, 'My car got stolen,' or, 'Someone broke into my home,' we generally start by going, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry that happened.' We start from a place of belief. That's our natural instinct," Pickering said. "I think there is some benefit in being able to compare our responses to this type of violence to other types of crimes, and think, 'Are we reacting differently for whatever reason?'"
Pickering said she understands the instinct for a person to disbelieve a survivor, "especially when they know the person who caused the harm." She also said she believes it's a human reaction to want to "distance yourself from violence and try to make it go away."
But she also warned that doing so could have negative ramifications for victims, including a lifelong effect on their ability to trust , recover and heal.
"What I would encourage people to look at is the fact that sexual violence disclosures are not the types of things that are generally made up," Pickering said. "Just from a research standpoint, it's very unlikely that someone has falsely reported this type of crime. It's actually less likely for someone to falsely report sexual abuse or assault than it is for someone to falsely report that someone took their car or broke into their home."
While MOCSA works closely with survivors, it also focuses on prevention by visiting schools and teaching children and teenagers about consent and bodily autonomy.
Meanwhile, KCSDV works with law enforcement agencies, including the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI). One incident of rape was reported to Kansas law enforcement every seven hours, 20 minutes and 55 seconds in 2019, according to KCSDV.
The group partnered with KBI to develop practices in sexual-assault response and offender accountability. KCSDV also promotes and supports Kansas House Bill 2228, which requires "law enforcement agencies to adopt a policy regarding submission of sexual-assault evidence kits and allows evidence collection at child-advocacy centers or other facilities."
In 2014, KBI identified more than 2,200 unsubmitted sexual-assault kits across the state. Forensic scientists completed testing all of those sexual assault kits in March 2021, according to KBI.
A spokesperson said the testing took several years because "forensic scientists worked on testing during overtime status so not to affect the progress of DNA evidence analysis on cases currently moving through the criminal justice system."
If you have been sexually assaulted, you can receive services from MOCSA by calling its 24-hour crisis line at 816-531-0233 in Missouri and 913-642-0233 in Kansas. The state of Kansas also provides a crisis hotline at 1-888-END-ABUSE (888-363-2287). Leaders said it doesn't matter how long ago the assault happened. They still are available to provide support and resources.