What It’s Like Now: Victoria Pickering, MOCSA director of advocacy for survivors of sexual assault

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re shifting our Shawnee Mission Faces to focus on folks in roles that have been profoundly effected by the virus and response: What life is like now with social distancing, a stay-at-home mandate and the need for essential workers.

Advocacy and support services are still available for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, even though it’s only over the phone right now. That is the number one thing Victoria Pickering wants to convey. As director of advocacy at MOCSA, a local nonprofit focused on supporting survivors and their families, she leads the team that helps survivors through next steps, like offering support during a medical exam at the hospital or navigating the criminal justice system. A UMKC grad with a degree in philosophy, Pickering has led a career in anti-violence work and sexual and reproductive healthcare. In her spare time, she enjoys next-level cooking as a home chef (mostly traditional Polish and Italian food and vegan dishes) and watching the Royals (when they’re back in action), Pickering lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband, Justin, and their terrier, Loretta.

I would say one of the biggest things that we’ve seen since we moved to the stay-at-home orders is that people are being instructed from a public health standpoint to not go to the hospital unnecessarily.

Well, unfortunately, one thing that has not been communicated in a widespread way is that getting a sexual assault exam is not an unnecessary medical need.

All of our area hospitals are still providing the same type of medical and forensic exams for sexual assault survivors that they were providing a month ago. But I think we’ve seen a decrease in the number of people going to the hospitals after an assault, which could be due to any number of reasons. I think part of it is due to the fact that people might feel like they’re not supposed to go to the hospital right now for those things. That’s always concerning.

When you hear people say don’t go to the hospital unless you’re really, really sick, I think we should also prioritize saying it’s OK to go to the hospital if you’ve been a victim of violence and you need to be examined.

There’s no reason why a pandemic should further isolate folks who’ve already experienced violence. We want them to know that we’re here for them, whether that’s through phone-based hospital advocacy, or through our hotline, or through our counseling services. If someone needs us, they can pick up the phone and call, and we’ll be there for them.

One of my advocates said the problem-solving process has slowed down a little bit but in some ways, it’s become more intentional. I thought that was a really powerful thing to say. The immediate response is not what it was a month ago. And because of that, it’s allowed us to become really thoughtful and really creative in the way that we provide services.

We are incredibly lucky in that we are able to provide our services via phone, and continue to work with our clients day in and day out. Our therapists have been providing ongoing therapy sessions via phone to make sure that this pandemic, which has impacted every aspect of all of our lives, does not necessarily create a new barrier to healing for individuals who’ve been impacted by sexual assault and abuse.

And it’s been really inspiring for me to see how everyone is just coming together and making sure that people’s well-being is prioritized alongside their health.

I recently sat in on a video call with partners throughout Johnson County to develop the best approach to ensuring that individuals still have access to protection orders. And everybody came to that meeting with the exact same goal, which is how do we limit contact to prioritize health, and how do we make things as accessible as possible to prioritize safety.

When it comes to supporting survivors and preventing violence, we all have a role to play. As we are physically separated from our community right now, we can do everything in our power to not be emotionally separated. And I think now more than ever, this requires a community-wide approach to make sure that folks are safe and that everyone has access to healing.

If you or someone you know needs support or resources, MOCSA’s crisis line is available 24/7 at 913-642-0233. A list of hospitals where survivors can get a sexual assault exam is available here. Self care tips are available on MOCSA’s website.