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Healing Together by Building a Community of Care: An Interview with Dr Laura Sinko

An interview with Dr Laura Sinko, a Mental Health Nurse and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) in Philadelphia, Director of Research and Evaluation at Our Wave, Director of the Phoenix Gender-Based Violence Lab and Assistant Professor at Temple University.

Location: Zoom (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA + Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada!)

Laura and Camille are smiling on zoom
Top to Bottom: Dr Laura Sinko and Camille Schloeffel

Even though my chat with Dr Sinko was on short notice, and time-limited (due to me jumping on the wrong Zoom link for 15 minutes...), this conversation was really valuable to me and my learning journey.

Firstly, who is Dr Laura Sinko?

Dr Sinko is an inspirational woman who brings a range of diverse expertise and lived experience to sexual violence prevention. She is a nurse who approaches her work in a trauma-informed and healing-centred way. She is an expert in trauma-healing, particularly after sexual assault, intimate partner violence and child abuse. She is passionate about promoting healing through storytelling and does this through her role as Director of Research and Evaluation at Our Wave, a platform that empowers victim-survivors to share their stories safely. She is also the Director of the Phoenix Gender-Based Violence Lab at Temple University. This Lab seeks to create a more supportive, healing world for victim-survivors of trauma and abuse by holistically exploring pathways to recovery and eliminating the social, cultural and structural underpinnings that promote violence and inhibit healing. 

Supporting people who experience sexual violence

Dr Sinko is a practising Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In her role as a SANE, she is responsible for collecting evidence in a forensic exam of a victim-survivor and supports police investigations by providing her expert opinion. I was happily surprised to learn that these forensic exams are free and that people are able to remain anonymous. This evidence is known as a 'Jane Doe Kit', it will be stored for up to 12 years and can be accessed by the victim-survivor at a later date if they decide to report.

Given her experiences working with police and the judicial system, Dr Sinko is also a strong advocate for alternatives to the legal system for responding to sexual violence. She has been trained as a Restorative Justice practitioner and believes that this alternative avenue can provide a more survivor-centred approach to care and healing by amplifying victim-survivor perspectives on justice and focusing on their needs. Dr Sinko also spoke about how there is a clear gap in attention to healing after sexual harm following the formal ‘justice’ process. Healing can be supported by things like making safety plans and victim-survivors being able to share their experiences with others. 

Services aimed at healing and support after sexual assault are often built for and catered towards white women. Noticing this gap in service support for people of diverse cultural backgrounds, Dr Sinko joined the leadership team of the international organisation, Our Wave, which seeks to share survivor stories from across the world. Our Wave’s storytelling platform is a passion project creating an anonymous community of victim-survivors. Its purpose is to build community, support storytelling as healing, create a body of stories to use to support data, provide educational resources for victim-survivors to engage in, and to support reform and advocacy initiatives.

This platform is an example of a community of care (albeit online and at a very large scale). It's all about creating a supportive community where care is embedded through design. This is exactly what is required to start creating cultures of safety within institutions. A first step to creating such a community of care is to co-design policies and procedures with the people it directly affects – victim-survivors, marginalised students, activists – and then start to build trust amongst the community by implementing these policies through genuine action.

Public Health Approach to Prevention: The Coordination of Care

I have been asking most people on this journey about how to get buy-in with institutions. However, I never asked institutional representatives about how they get buy-in from victim-survivors. Dr Sinko flipped my thinking about this, noting that by only asking the first question we reject the idea that victim-survivors are able to build their own power. She spoke about how it is essential that we have coordination of care in the university context. For example, she spoke about how the University of Michigan (where she used to work as a sexual assault advocate) does coordination of care very well. They have the sexual assault response team on campus, a health centre of health professionals, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, campus police, and mental health services. All of these services are readily available on campus and regularly come together to discuss cases, notice patterns of harm, and subsequently do work to reduce them (i.e. drug-related sexual assault). It takes a lot of relationship building and shared values within these spaces to effectively collaborate on creating a safer community for all.

This coordination of care is interlinked with the public health approach to preventing sexual violence. Seeing sexual violence as a public health issue legitimises it as something that requires investment and buy-in from senior leaders and institutions. It also rejects the notion that sexual violence and other related harms are a ‘family’ problem (to be dealt with privately), which is a traditional and historical way of viewing violence in society. Addressing sexual violence as a public health issue and implementing a coordination of care approach also addresses the current situation where activists and advocates (who are mostly victim-survivors themselves) are lifting the load to combat this issue. Activists and advocates are often overworked and underpaid (or not paid at all) – leading them to experience high rates of burnout and stress. Institutions should be paying these activists and advocates to coordinate care for victim-survivors as they are best placed to actually develop positive relationships built on trust with victim-survivors. 

Victim-survivors already hold a lot of distrust in the institutions and services that are meant to protect and support them, such as universities, police and hospitals. If we resourced these sectors with people who care and who are properly supported to prevent burnout and vicarious trauma (including by ensuring they are not intimidated or controlled by their institution), there would be much less harm being done to the victim-survivors they come into contact with and the sector could actually achieve sustainable and lasting positive reforms.

Reflections on activism

Communities of care in the advocacy context allow us to be activists in a way that is sustainable and collaborative. Being an activist for a cause extremely personal to you can be exhausting. Dr Sinko acknowledged this and emphasised how integral it is for our activism to be sustainable and collaborative. Sustainable activism looks like: prioritising the work that needs to be done while also checking in on yourself and incorporating positive habits for your health and wellbeing. This includes scheduling moments of pause and rest. It also looks like taking a step back from your everyday activism and taking stock of who is supporting you, and who might not have a seat at the table, and working to get those people into the conversation. Collaborative activism looks like building a community of activists and advocates so that you don't have to do this all on your own. It's being a part of a community of victim-survivors to fall back on and who can be there for you when you feel alone.

“While we wait for systemic changes we build a community of care.”

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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