Task force refocuses pros on assault  survivors, has eyes on longer game

Executive Director Michele Roland-Schwartz.

For 10 years, the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force (SATF) has called Keizer home. Nestled between fast food joints, apartments and a property management company – SATF staff have a small, unassuming office in which they do big work.

The non-profit offers training for Oregon’s police academy, first responders, sexual assault nurse examiners and higher education institutions. Or as Executive Director Michele Roland-Schwartz defines it “helping the helpers.”

In lieu of working directly with survivors of sexual assault, the task force works with the various professions who work with survivors.

“We train people, we offer technical assistance and then we do legislative and public policy work,” Roland-Schwartz said.

They’ve been based in Keizer – because of its proximity to the capitol – for the last 10 years, but at its inception 20 years ago the SATF was based in Eugene. Unfortunately, the work is also just as necessary as it was when the SATF began.

  Oregon is second in the nation (behind Alaska) in rates of sexual violence against women, roughly 1 in 4 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Nationally, 1 in 5 women are victimized. More than 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime.

Most of their work comes down to making sure that the people survivors encounter – confidential advocates, first responders, nurses, police officers, campus staff and the like – are trauma-informed. Trauma-informed intake relieves survivors educating the people they seek help from.

All of the training takes place through the SATF Training Institute, which contracts with about 20 instructors across the state. While not having in-person training because of COVID has been difficult in some aspects, it has opened up access to people who may not have been able to attend certain meetings because of location.

“The silver-lining we’re experiencing is because we moved so much of our stuff online into a virtual format, we are able to reach more people in Oregon,” Roland-Schwartz said.

The task force covers all of Oregon, and Zoom meetings have made it easier to have conversations with people from every corner of the state without anyone having to shell out money for travel and hotel expenses.

Instructors train people to respond in a trauma-informed way, but their main focus is prevention programs to address the root causes of sexual assault. Prevention work focuses on children still learning societal expectations.

“We facilitate funding for non-profit programs that do violence prevention predominately in K-12 settings,” Roland-Schwartz said. The goal is to catch behaviors and correct them early to shift the social norms that lead to predatory environments later in life.

Because everyone is capable of causing harm, proper education about abuse and violence of any kind at a young age sets a standard for behavioral and social norms.

The SATF staff of 10 believes deeply in prevention work, one of the things that weighs heavily on Roland-Schwartz is when people assume sexual abuse and violence is inevitable. SATF is aiming to build a better tomorrow by teaching children what their resources are, inspiring autonomy, choice, privacy and well-being for all people.

Attempting to reduce the staggering number of sexual assault victims and eliminate risk factors can be upsetting; Roland-Schwartz’s job is one that comes with what she calls “existential dread,” a moment when an individual questions whether their job has meaning or value and is negatively impacted by contemplation. 

In short, an occupational hazard of her job is bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders.

“The lifespan of an advocate in this work is about four years and then folks burn out,” Roland-Schwartz said.

One thing that sparks her hope is SATFs involvement in the legislature. Some of the current bills for the 2021 legislative session involve strengthening Oregon’s Sexual Abuse Protective Order, ensuring continued funding for Oregon’s domestic and sexual violence non-profit programs, and further housing protections for survivors. 

Now in her 20th year as an advocate, Roland-Schwartz keeps her focus on handing off a better world to the next generation by teaching the next generation to be better.