The night before the production of “The Vagina Monologues” that Margaret Reynolds directed at Tulane University was set to open, she asked the cast of the well-known play why they were performing in it.
“There were probably 50 or so women that were participating, and 48 of them had been survivors of sexual assault,” Reynolds recalled. “Maybe two had reported it, and the stories of the ones that had reported were really horrendous.”
The number of sexual assaults reported to the New Orleans Police Department in 2015 rose by about 28 percent compared with the year before, but going to the police, or simply finding counseling, after such an assault is still an intimidating process.
On Wednesday, Reynolds celebrated the opening of a new Mid-City office dedicated to alleviating the trials that survivors of sexual assault face after the crime.
Reynolds is the regional director for Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response, a nonprofit group that has operated in Baton Rouge since 1975 and now has an office in the Crescent City.
Unlike some other groups in the New Orleans area that focus on assaults by intimate partners or family members, Reynolds said, STAR’s focus is on sexual assaults by strangers or acquaintances.
When victims of sexual assault call the group on its hotline, they will be greeted by a volunteer who can help them find counseling or health care referrals and offer information about how to report the crime to police.
STAR’s hotline also serves as a dispatching center for medical advocates the group sends to hospitals, such as University Medical Center, as victims undergo forensic examinations, also known as rape kit exams.
“Oftentimes survivors just need someone who’s not affiliated with the police, or with medical, or whoever, just to be there for them,” Reynolds said. “You’ve had all control taken away from you. And so our advocates are trained to give that control back.”
Employees and volunteers also will act as legal advocates to sit with victims when they are interviewed by police and will refer the victims of even decades-old crimes to counselors.
Those services are provided regardless of the caller’s gender. Reynolds said that out of 231 clients served in Baton Rouge between July and December 2015, 205 of them identified as female, 24 as male and two as transgender.
As STAR gears up to serve Orleans Parish, another organization is scaling back.
The Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, which previously provided medical advocacy services in New Orleans, will be offering that service solely in Jefferson Parish and the River Parishes as of March 1.
“There’s not enough free and confidential services to go around,” said Darlene Santana, the executive director of the Metropolitan Center. “So this is wonderful for survivors in the New Orleans area to have an additional resource for counseling and case management and medical advocacy.”
STAR’s launch comes a little more than a year after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux issued a scathing report about the NOPD’s Sex Crimes Unit, which itself followed in the footsteps of criticism from the U.S. Department of Justice. The NOPD says it has taken strides since then to reform the unit through closer supervision, additional training and extra pay to attract dedicated detectives.
Reynolds said STAR’s expansion into New Orleans is being supported by a private, anonymous donor. She did not know whether the donor was responding to the Sex Crimes Unit’s well-documented troubles, she said.
Even before Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the office at 123 N. Genois St., STAR had fielded 42 hotline calls and provided services, like counseling, 63 times since a November “soft launch.”
Those wishing to make use of STAR’s services can call its hotline at (855) 435-STAR. It is available around the clock.