A man walks around the rear of the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set news policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Keri Kapaldo is a forensic nurse and program coordinator and assistant nurse manager for the SAFE Program at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.

I am a forensic nurse and member of St. Joseph Healthcare’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner, or SAFE, Program, which provides trauma-informed, medical-forensic care for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, abuse and neglect.

Here’s a bit of perspective on the program. In 2022, St. Joseph’s SAFE Program cared for 88 acute sexual assault patients, a dramatic 63 percent increase from 2021. We consulted with 64 additional patients who disclosed acute or historical sexual assault resulting in referrals to advocacy agencies, a vast 156 percent increase from 2021.

That’s 152 times a survivor heard “I’m sorry this happened to you,” “I believe you” and “I’m here for you,” from an advocate — and that’s incredibly powerful. It’s also dozens of times that an advocate was called to the hospital at any time of the day and night to be by the side of a person who desperately needed someone to advocate for them because they simply could not do that for themselves.

LD 566, An Act to Provide Funding for Sexual Assault Services, sponsored by Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, needs support. This act will help retain advocates and expand services for disproportionately affected populations, including people with developmental disabilities, Black women and transgender people who have been sexually assaulted.

Consider this: Sexual violence doesn’t just affect a person physically. It also affects them mentally, emotionally and socially. Survivors rely heavily on the presence of an advocate during a medical exam, but also as a resource outside the hospital for support while they navigate the lengthy process of healing emotionally, mentally and socially. In my nine years as a SAFE nurse, I’ve collaborated with many advocates who have directly supported survivors by: Sitting in a chapel to share quiet time with a patient and help them feel safe. Running to a restaurant at 1 a.m. for a survivor who requested comfort food.

Brainstorming safe housing options at 2 a.m. for someone being trafficked.

Making phone calls to run hypothetical scenarios by a detective or nurse.
Being in the courtroom as a patient requests a protection from abuse order.

Accompanying a patient to a doctor’s appointment because that has been a negative experience in the past.

All of this support and care, which may seem like insignificant acts, consistently translates to smiles, hugs and, most importantly, hope. Advocates commit to patients for the long term. They’re called on at 3 a.m. when a survivor is having nightmares, they make the time to meet up for coffee and chat and so much more. Advocates are there — period.

Retaining much-needed sexual assault advocates is challenging. Here’s why: Being an advocate is a difficult and complex job that requires constantly being on call — a reality their wages do not reflect.

In 2022, 37 percent of Maine’s advocates left their positions, a turnover rate of twice the national average. Of the advocates that stayed in their jobs, half have indicated they plan to leave within two years. Further, 70 percent of advocates said low pay was the main reason they would leave their job.

None of Maine’s sexual assault support centers or children’s advocacy centers currently offer all staff a living wage for a two-child, two-working-parent household.

This bill will raise annual wages from as low as $33,500 annually to a floor of $45,000 to better align with positions that require considerable, comparable experience and training.

I hope the Legislature will do the right thing and fund this important bill. I can assure you from my years of experience, it will make an immense difference in both the lives of sexual assault survivors and those that tirelessly advocate for them.