By Stephanie Krehbiel
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment, an advocate can help you navigate a confusing and potentially retraumatizing system. But finding a good advocate isn’t always as easy as it should be.
Advocates for survivors can be found in lots of places: prosecutor’s offices, crisis centers, or other nonprofits. Some advocates are paid professionals and some do advocacy as volunteers, but all advocates, regardless of professional status, have an ethical obligation to the survivors they serve. If you’re a survivor, I hope this list helps you search for the best advocate, with confidence that you know what to look for.
With that, here are nine characteristics of good advocates:
- They let you feel what you’re feeling. They never shame you for your emotions or try to “correct” them. Good advocates know that strong emotions are part of trauma, and that strong emotions do not disqualify you as an expert on your own experience.
- They have the ability to sit with complexity. You may be feeling about ten things at once. You may be dealing with the effects of gaslighting and have trouble trusting your own instincts. A good advocate won’t try to “fix” the complexity you’re experiencing.
- They treat you like an adult. If your advocate makes you feel stupid or belittled, it’s a red flag and you likely need to seek support elsewhere.
- They stay in their lane. If you need a counselor, law enforcement, and/or a lawyer, an advocate can talk you through what to look for in those kinds of professionals without trying to take their place.
- They can hold onto information about your personal life without interfering in it. For example, an advocate talking about you to your friends and family without your explicit permission is completely unethical-even if they claim it’s for your own good. If you ask them for advice, they may give it, but they won’t punish you for not taking it.
- They respect your timetable for sharing the details of your experience. Depending on the processes you’re involved in with them, they may ask you clarifying questions about the circumstances of your abuse. If they’re pressuring you for details, that isn’t okay. A good advocate can hear “I’m not ready to share that right now” without freaking out.
- They are understanding of and respect the importance of mental health. Trauma produces a lot of responses in human beings that can require treatment. If you’re living with trauma-related illness, an advocate probably isn’t the only professional you need on your team. It is crucial that a good advocate treat you like a human being worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of any diagnosis or treatments that may be a part of your life.
- They ask your permission before taking actions related to your case.
- If you’re a person of faith, they respect that. If you’re not a person of faith, or if your faith is different than theirs, they will not use an advocacy relationship as an opportunity to attempt conversion.
To search for additional support groups and resources near you, search here.