Q&A with Artika Roller, who says Legislature needs to fund programs for sex assault survivors

Executive director of Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault: “We need everyone to step up and show up.”

By: - July 22, 2022 2:37 pm

Artika Roller, executive director, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Photo courtesy of MCASA.

The beginning of the pandemic was met with fear that as vulnerable people were stuck at home with abusers, rates of sexual assault would rise. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, says that 80% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 

National Alliance to End Sexual Violence reported that in May 2020, as shelter-in-place orders were implemented, close to 40% of the rape crisis centers surveyed had seen increased demand for services since the COVID-19 outbreak.  The previous month, RAINN reported that for the first time, minors made up half of the calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline for the first time. More than half identified perpetrators as a family member, and 79% said they were living with that perpetrator.  

“Unfortunately for many, and especially for children experiencing sexual abuse, ‘stay at home’ doesn’t mean ‘safe at home,’” RAINN’s President Scott Berkowitz said at the time.  

Stay-at-home orders were lifted in most of the country, however, and the worst fears may not have borne out. According to the national crime victimization survey from the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of people reporting rape or sexual assault remained largely unchanged from 2019 to 2020, the first pandemic year. 

The Reformer spoke to Artika Roller, executive director, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA), on the continued need to find solutions to a chronic, ongoing issue.

What progress or, for that matter backsliding, has there been in prosecuting sexual violence?

There has been progress. We’ve been more successful getting policy and protocol in legislation to make sure victims and survivors have sexual assault kits tested. Kits were being stored without being tested. A legislated practice has moved forward in recent years to make sure evidence is processed and analyzed. We need to collect more data, however, so we can identify which communities are more likely to have test kits that haven’t been tested. So we need do outreach in those communities with backlogs.

Which communities would that be?

Demographics aren’t available. However, data supports that communities of color are impacted at a significantly high rate. We know it’s happening here and nationwide. We just don’t have the demographics in Minnesota.  

Making bad matters worse, Black and Native victims aren’t inclined to dial 911.

There are communities where people don’t trust the system for a positive outcome.  There’s also shame associated with [being a victim of rape], including blaming the victim. There are multiple reasons they don’t come forward.   

What about men being raped? It’s a staple of popular culture about prisons, but society seldom acknowledges the crime.

Yes, there is a lack of resources for men and boys, and the stigma associated with rape makes it difficult for people to report the crime and reach out for help. The Sexual Violence Center located in Minneapolis has a men’s support group, and we are trying to bring more attention to this area of need.

There is also a lack of resources for the LGBTQIA community, transgender persons and culturally specific services.

It doesn’t help things when gay men won’t report being raped in the first place because they feel police won’t treat it seriously.

I would say that’s not uncommon. It’s complicated, because it’s also about how exposed [one] wants to be in moving forward, to heal or to process what happened to them.

You mention the word “exposed,” and that seems sadly crucial. It’s 2022 in the land of social progress and so forth. But not everyone who isn’t heterosexual has come out. The closet still exists.

I would agree.  There might be consequences in some communities for reaching out.  It’s not as easy as, “Why didn’t you just tell?”

What is concretely in place to help victims with their healing? And should we have in place that we don’t have?

We have multiple resources for advocates to support survivors. We have to put state resources behind the work we are doing.  It is up to our legislators to move forward in making sure we have increased funding. That includes mental health, restorative justice practice issues and court advocacy. Where they are lacking is LGBTIQA. We could definitely have additional resources in that area, and for male survivors as well. 

I would also say we need more culturally specific programming. All of this requires that we put state resources behind the work we are doing.

Apprehending a rapist is not where society’s responsibility ends. Is there not a place where law enforcement and social work intersect?

Yes. We need everyone to step up and show up. We need everybody to come to the table in collaborative ways.  There has to be a real commitment to that. Law enforcement repeatedly says they are not social service providers. But we are not putting resources behind the organizations that provide social services, the organizations that are willing to step up and perform that role. 

There has been an “abolish police/defund police” movement both here and nationally, and for at least a couple decades people have been talking about reducing incarceration and now they talk about ending incarceration in favor of “restorative justice” etc. What are your thoughts as this pertains to survivors?

The current criminal justice system doesn’t capture what victims and survivors need regarding accountability of people who do harm and commit sexual violence. So, we have to rethink what we’re doing as a system. It should encompass a variety of ways to re-examine our approach to this as a community in order to have a successful solution. Police involvement is part of that solution. Restorative justice is also. 

Right now, a priority for us is a legislative plan to increase funding for victim services, and we’ve tried to move forward on it for the past seven years. 

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