Closer Look: RAINN’s Research and Evaluation Team

In honor of RAINN’s 25th anniversary, each month we’ll be taking a closer look at the people and programs that are essential in our work to help survivors today and every day. This month, we’re shining a spotlight on RAINN’s research and evaluation team.

For RAINN to achieve its mission of supporting survivors and ending sexual violence, it needs to continually learn, adapting its services and training to the needs of survivors. That’s where the research and evaluation team comes in. They’re the ones who dig deeper to better understand the voices of survivors, while ensuring that hotline users remain anonymous. The team studies the who, what, and why of the National Sexual Assault Hotline and the types of challenges vistors to it often face.

“The hotline is free, anonymous, and 24/7, so it’s well-positioned to serve survivors who might not otherwise reach out for help; and we’re in a unique position to understand their concerns,” says Dr. Kimberly Goodman, director of research and evaluation. “Staff never solicit information for the purposes of assessment during their interactions with hotline visitors. We rely on staff feedback about the conversation so that we can understand patterns in the data. With this information, we focus on the type of people who use the hotline, what they’re concerned about, and why they’re coming to us.”

“One of the team’s many lines of work includes understanding the concerns of child sexual abuse victims. For example, we estimate that at least 1 in 5 survivors who visit the online hotline is a minor, and for more than half of minors, our hotline staffer is the first person to whom they’ve ever disclosed their experiences of sexual assault. Of those who have already told someone else in their life, many mention that they were met with a negative reaction from the person they told.”

“These are crucial findings because we know how pivotal that first time disclosing can be—for the good and for the bad. Having the first person you tell be supportive can make all the difference for recovery,” says Goodman. “In the research world, there are very limited insights about the concerns of child sexual assault survivors. This is because most studies rely on retrospective recall with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. We’re in a unique position because we have a real-time window into the concerns of minors who are experiencing this right now.”

The team’s findings reveal that minors often choose not to report abuse or assault because they are worried about what will happen afterwards. Fear of retaliation is an especially prominent barrier to reporting for minors. “This makes sense,” says Goodman, “because the perpetrator is often intertwined with the child’s support system—their family. Minors hear that they should report abuse to a trusted adult, but if a caregiver is the one abusing them, they may fear further abuse if they speak up. Many trusted adults in their lives are also likely to be mandated reporters, which can make minors feel that there is no one in their lives they can talk to about sexaul assault before choosing to report. When they do want to report, minors are often motivated to report for self-protection, as opposed to adults, who often report because they want to make sure what happened to them doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

“The hotline is a unique place for minors to go because they do not have to disclose their identity. It is perhaps the only place where a child or teen can receive a validating, empathetic response, get information, and brainstorm ways to stay safe—all without the worry that disclosure will trigger a mandated report,” explains Goodman. “RAINN is very careful to follow the mandatory reporting laws in every state, but reports are only required once the minor chooses to reveal personally identifying information, or if an adult caller gives us identifying information about the abuse of a child. Ultimately, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is a bridge to more formal services and reporting for many kids, but it looks very different for everyone.”

In the future, RAINN’s research team hopes to better understand the diversity of minors’ experiences and concerns, with particular attention to more specific age groups. “Needless to say, the concerns of a 17-year-old are very different than the concerns of a 9-year-old,” says Goodman. Another important direction is to understand who is least and most likely to use resources, get help, or feel understood. This information is invaluable for making sure RAINN tailors its training to make sure that all survivors’ needs are being met.

“Sometimes there aren’t easy answers for the problems before us,” says Goodman, “but a good step is getting in touch with what those problems and challenges are. We study the data not only to answer questions, but also to ensure that we’re asking the right questions of ourselves to guide the development of services and training.”

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