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A new hotline helps New Orleans survivors of sexual violence and trauma 

Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response opens its New Orleans branch

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Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response (STAR) has served Baton Rouge and the capitol area for more than 40 years. The organization expanded late last year with the soft opening of its New Orleans branch in Mid-City. On Jan. 20, STAR formally opens in New Orleans.

  In 2015, STAR received 843 calls to its 24-hour hotline (855-435-STAR) for sexual assault survivors. It provided nearly 2,000 direct services — from counseling and legal aid to sexual assault kit assistance — to people in the Baton Rouge area, all at no cost. Its New Orleans hotline went online in November, and has received 32 calls since its launch. Since November the organization has directly served more than 60 people, from medical help to criminal justice agency aid.

  On an individual level, STAR advocates accompany survivors to University Med-ical Center during sexual assault forensic examinations," New Orleans Regional Director Margaret Reynolds said in an email: "In addition, our advocates accompany survivors to follow-up interviews with the NOPD."

  New Orleans criminal justice agencies and advocates say more survivors of sexual assault are coming forward to report their attacks — within the first nine months of 2015, reported rapes went up more than 50 percent than in the same time in 2014. The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) reported 269 rapes through September 2015, up from 97 reported rapes in the same time period in 2014. (That year, nationwide criminal justice agencies began recognizing male victims and sexual batteries in rape reporting statistics.) NOPD also was challenged to overhaul its sexual assault response under the Department of Justice's consent decree. In August 2015, the department unveiled its plan, which included pay raises for special victims detectives, hiring more detectives and social workers in sex crimes and child abuse units, and more training for reporting and handling sexual assault cases. NOPD also received more than $1 million from the DOJ to reduce its backlog of untested rape kits and moved its sex crimes unit into the New Orleans Family Justice Center to better connect survivors to counseling and other services.

  STAR advocates are available 24/7 to offer emotional support and help with information about the exam and interactions with law enforcement. STAR serves as part of the New Orleans Sexual Assault Response Team, a criminal justice-wide network of services for survivors.

  STAR also works with NOPD using its hotline as a resource for survivors after a cold case is reopened, Reynolds says, giving survivors access to advocates and aid during the investigation. Under its new guidelines, NOPD holds "case summary meetings" with survivors before a case transfers to a cold case unit; previous policy sent the survivor's case to that unit automatically after one year without notifying the survivor.

  The Office of Violence Against Women awarded STAR $1.1 million over three years to expand advocacy services in rural areas. This year, STAR also plans to expand to Alexandria.

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