Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center will offer its online Seeking Safety support group in San Juan County after reports from the San Juan County Attorney’s Office about a spike in reported sexual assaults related to the region’s schools. [Courtesy photo]

A Moab-based nonprofit is branching out after a public official in San Juan County raised the specter of a “rape culture” in the region’s public schools.

On Sept. 18, Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center announced that their Seeking Safety support group would be newly facilitated in San Juan County by sexual assault advocate Amber MacArthur.

Seekhaven has been serving domestic violence and sexual assault survivors in Moab and southeastern Utah since 1990. By offering free and confidential client advocacy, emergency shelter and transition assistance services, Seekhaven seeks to provide a safe space for survivors — regardless of gender or age — to heal and rebuild.

In mid-August, the San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws asserted at a San Juan County Commission meeting that there was “a developing rape culture” specifically in the county’s schools. The San Juan School District was cited for Title IX violations for failing to respond to sexual harassment in the schools in 2009, as reported by KUER Radio.

Laws said that his office has observed an increase in reported sexual assault cases among students in the past year.

“Whether this is a result of increased instances of sexual offenses or an increased reporting rate is unknown,” Laws wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to the San Juan School Board.

“Of the 47 sexual crimes committed in the past 12 months,” Laws wrote, “38 of them were committed against or by” a student in the district.

“From an outsider’s perspective, it has appeared to me that San Juan County’s community has experienced a lot of pain and heartache over what has come to light recently,” said Tess Barger, director of client services at Seekhaven, in an interview with the Moab Sun News. “What I’ve seen is the community speaking out and calling harmful thought patterns to attention.”

Laws also wrote about his perception that parts of the community were hostile toward assault victims, including “victim-blaming” and misconceptions about consent.

Many in the county are “calling for others to support them in increasing education, decreasing victim-blaming, ensuring that they’re supporting their community members who’ve experienced hurt, and are seeking resources and education in partnerships to stop cycles of violence within their community,” said MacArthur.

By offering Seeking Safety and other services in San Juan County, Seekhaven hopes to continue educating the community and uncovering potentially harmful cultural norms.

“Seeking Safety has been around for a number of years. It’s a coping skills-building group that’s incredibly adaptable,” said Barger.

Seekhaven put roots down in San Juan County only three years ago. The county is different from Grand County in size and demographics and the nonprofit has continued to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented there, particularly when assisting Indigenous survivors.

“Because the majority of our staff is based in Moab and because our history is in Moab, there could be room for error in terms of us not offering the same expansive services in both communities,” said Barger. “We’re providing this program to both counties because members of both communities deserve it equally.”

According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study, more than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted. Over one-third of Native American women have been raped during their lifetime (a rate 2.5 times higher than for white women). 56.1% of Native American women have experienced sexual violence.

“The beauty of Seeking Safety is that it is so adaptable to any situation — sexual assault, addiction, domestic violence, group settings, individual settings, older generations, younger generations, virtually and in-person,” said MacArthur. “The program takes the person and helps them develop strength within themselves, helping them take control over their lives again.”

In order to provide support in a culturally sensitive manner, Seekhaven has applied for several grants specifically for supporting Indigenous communities, whether that’s by translating program materials into the Navajo language or offering traditional healing ceremonies.

“We are collaborating with community partners in San Juan County to ensure that we are connecting with and making ourselves as accessible as possible to the Indigenous community,” said Barger.

Seeking Safety in a close-knit community

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many survivors of domestic and sexual assault were forced into quarantine with their abusers, and crucial support groups couldn’t meet due to physical distancing guidelines.

“Unhealthy coping skills have made themselves more prevalent and the need for mental health support services dramatically increased across the board,” said Barger. “Seeking Safety has been especially useful during this period of isolation.”

In the midst of this time where survivors needed connection and support more than ever, Seekhaven adapted their Seeking Safety program to be available in a virtual setting. The online option helps mitigate the risks of in-person gatherings and also makes it easier for more rural, remote clients to access the help they need; this aspect is especially relevant in San Juan County, where some clients live more than two hours away from Seekhaven’s home base in Blanding.

Providing Seeking Safety in a virtual format allows survivors living on the Navajo Nation to more easily access the support they need.

“As a facilitator, my big focuses are confidentiality and adaptability,” said MacArthur. “In small-town communities like in San Juan County, everybody knows everybody. We want everyone who comes to us to feel safe and respected.”

With Moab and San Juan County both being home to small, close-knit communities, Seekhaven has applied for several grants to assure that Seeking Safety will be available in totally confidential settings.

“The incredible importance of Seeking Safety is that it’s able to serve individuals no matter when they experienced their trauma,” Barger continued. “Many individuals experience sexual violence experienced as a child or youth, and they’ve never been given the space in their lives to process that.”

Sexual assault advocates like MacArthur must undergo 40 hours of training from the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and another 40 hours from the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. They must also complete continuing education requirements throughout their tenure to stay up-to-date on the latest research and trends.

But beyond training hours and other curricula, Seekhaven prides itself on forming genuine, collaborative relationships within the communities they serve.

“Each community looks so different,” said Barger. “So rapport-building and understanding how different systems and agencies work within our communities is a big part of onboarding and training.”

Looking to the future, MacArthur and Barger will continue to draw on their own personal experiences and passions to educate Grand and San Juan Counties about sexual assault.

“We are who we serve,” said Barger. “I have a quote that I go back to a lot: If you try to fix someone, you see them as broken. If you try to help someone, you see them as weak. If you serve someone, you see them as whole.”

MacArthur agreed, again highlighting the confidentiality and adaptability of the Seeking Safety program.

“We become advocates because we are empathetic and we don’t want to see people hurting,” she commented. “We walk with our clients where they are, not above them or below them. We’re right there by their side for whatever they need.”

Seekhaven offers support in San Juan County after public official raises alarm

“We walk with our clients where they are, not above them or below them.”

– Amber MacArthur