Leaving Isn't Easy

When facing the decision to leave or remain in an abusive situation, it’s a choice that is multilayered and rarely easy to make. Sadly, women are nearly twice as likely to experience the most severe types of partner violence as men. Add on the fact that children are often involved in these situations, and the complications around leaving a dangerous home setting become even more complex.

Abuse is never the survivor’s fault.

Women who have been abused are not weak or “asking for it” – anyone can end up abused. Rather, these survivors might be hoping that things will get better or that their partner will stop the abuse on their own. Sometimes it can feel safer to stay rather than risk leaving the home. There can be elements of guilt and shame attached to these situations, too, from people around the survivor who question why they stay (called “victim blaming”) or thoughts of “if only I just did this one thing, my partner would change.” But people who have experienced any of the forms of domestic violence – physical, emotional, sexual or psychological – know that leaving an abusive relationship isn’t straightforward.

If you need immediate, emergency assistance, visit ShelterSafe.ca for a list of local women’s shelters. Staff and volunteers at shelters are there to listen and offer emotional support, information and referrals to other services that may be needed such as legal, financial and housing.

Survivors need help beyond crisis intervention to be self-sufficient.

Women need economic security and independence to improve their chances of living free from abuse. Consider how tied to a job one can be, when the possibility of losing regular income comes into play. This fear and dependence are multiplied when abuse in involved. A person may feel that, if they leave, they will have no way to support themselves and their children.

Assisting survivors toward financial independence and security means flexible approaches that can respond and recognize differences in each woman’s strengths and challenges. We can help you explore your options.

May marks Sexual Assault Prevention Month across Ontario

In Ontario, May is Sexual Assault Prevention Month. It’s an annual occasion meant to raise awareness about how widespread sexual violence is in our communities, as well as promote ways to stop sexual assault.

One in three women experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
— Source: Government of Ontario

This statistic doesn’t reflect those crimes that have been reported to police – we know that number is much lower: For every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 33 are reported to authorities. For every story heard about a friend being attacked on a date, someone who was abused as a child, or a colleague being sexually harassed at work, many more incidents are kept hidden or quiet, making sexual assault one of the most underreported crimes. This means survivors aren’t getting the help they need, and perpetrators aren’t held accountable.

A lot of our society’s understanding of sexual assault can be attributed to what’s called “rape myths.” These are common misconceptions about why and how sexual assault happens and what it looks like. Separating myth from fact is crucial to stopping sexual violence.

Myth: If a woman isn’t crying, visibly upset, or injured, it wasn’t sexual assault.

Fact: Everyone responds differently to the trauma of sexual assault and it’s important not to judge how they react. Sexual assault does not necessarily leave bruises or injure the survivor, and they may have been unconscious, threatened or otherwise coerced, so visible, physical marks should not be a sole indicator of assault.

Myth: If it really happened, she should be able to remember all the details of the assault.

Fact: There are lots of reasons why memories of sexual violence can be impaired. Many survivors try to minimize or forget details as a way to cope with trauma, plus shock and fear can play a major role in memory loss.

Myth: Most sexual assaults are not a big deal.

Fact: There is no right way to cope with sexual assault. But we do know that women who are assaulted have higher rates of mental health issues like self-harming or suicidal behaviours, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. It’s estimated that each year in Canada, the financial impact for women who survive sexual assault is $3.4 billion in medical costs, lost productivity, and intangible costs like pain and suffering.

One way that survivors can overcome some of this financial impact is by pursuing justice for the emotional and physical pain caused. And we can help.

Yes, No and #MeToo

In the age of the #MeToo movement, it might seem like consent has become a bad word. But at its core, consent is about boundaries, respect and, most of all, it is only yours to give. You can say no to anything at any time.

When it comes to sex, both people involved must freely agree — every single time — for it to be consensual. And every person has the right stop engaging in a sexual activity, even if a ‘yes’ was given at first. In other words, you can take back your consent. Also, consenting to one kind of sexual activity does not mean you consent to others. You have the final say over what happens with your body.

Consent is never implied by things like past behaviour, what you wear or where you go.

In Canada, the law requires that a person take steps to find out whether the other person is consenting and outlines situations when sex is not consensual:

  1. You communicate, through your words or actions, that you do not want to participate in sex.

  2. Someone else consents for you. No one can give permission on your behalf to engage in sex.

  3. You are incapacitated, for example by alcohol or drugs or being unconscious.

  4. There is an abuse of trust or authority, where someone’s position of power is used to coerce sex from another person.

One of the scenarios often heard about is when a survivor was in shock, didn’t want to further provoke the other person, or didn’t feel like they had a choice in what was happening, so they stayed quiet during the assault. Silence, or the absence of a no, does not equal consent.

If you or someone you love has been a victim of sexual assault, there is help available.

An Ongoing Commitment to You
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Self-care is a popular term these days. In its simplest form, self-care means the things you do to take care of your physical and mental well-being. It includes those daily tasks like brushing your teeth and showering, to making sure you get a solid sleep nightly. But it can also mean finding ways to check in on your emotional health, taking time to notice how you’re feeling about yourself and life.

Self-care is an important and valuable practice for any person but can be even more essential for survivors of trauma.

The experience of sexual trauma, especially from childhood, can make learning good self-care difficult. Insensitive comments from people around you, media like the ongoing #metoo news, and storylines from TV or movies can bring up all kinds of feelings related to your trauma.

If you are experiencing difficult feelings surrounding your trauma, it may be time to seek help from a professional.

Self-care isn’t a one-time thing – it’s an ongoing commitment to taking care of yourself, at every level.

Survivors often don’t like the idea of asking for help. Many people who have experienced trauma struggle with the idea that their needs matter and deserve attention. If you blame yourself for abuse or assault, remember that it isn’t – and was never – your fault. RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) has some excellent suggestions on ways to identify types of self-care that could be a fit for you.

One tip is to limit the news you watch or listen to, especially since reports on sexual violence can be sensationalized, graphic or shaming toward the survivor. If you do come across media coverage that’s upsetting or triggering, remind yourself that these experiences are not happening to you in that instant and that you don’t owe it to anyone to be familiar with these kinds of stories.

Your well-being matters.

You matter.

Processing Childhood Trauma
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Surviving childhood trauma can be a lifelong struggle. When trust is broken at such a pivotal time, it leaves an impact that changes how you see the world and walk in it. It may feel like you’ve been conditioned to think you’re “bad” or undeserving of care and compassion.

Know it’s possible for you to take care of yourself and to heal, and it’s not too late to start.

One thing you can do is tell someone that you trust about what happened. If you don’t know someone who you can confide in, there are local  and national resources where you can find people trained to listen and guide you to the help you need, and the different options available to you.

There are a few things to remember if you decide to share your experiences with a trusted person:

  1. First and foremost, take all the time you need. While it might feel like a relief to tell your story, it can also feel overwhelming, especially if the trauma took place over an extended period of time. Writing down what you want to say can help keep you focused.

  2. If you choose to speak to a counsellor or a lawyer, you can expect confidentiality. These professionals are trained to work with people who have survived similar experiences to you and can provide practical information to help you recover.

  3. How you feel after you share your story can be different depending on who you are speaking with. A trusted family member or friend may be best able to provide emotional support and comfort, while a professional, like a counsellor or lawyer, can lend mental health support or legal advice. Both are important and can help you manage your thoughts and feelings.

No matter who you choose to speak to about your trauma, ensuring your own well-being and sense of safety must be a top priority – and not just a priority for you, but also for those you choose to share your experiences with. This means people who will not put you under pressure to do something you don’t want to, and you decide how much of your story to share and when.

Your Right to Privacy, Even in Public
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We shouldn’t have to worry about being secretly videotaped or photographed when we head out into public to do daily activities like work, school or shopping. However, smartphones and other advanced camera technology have caused voyeurism – a form of sex offence – to be on the rise in our communities.

You might hear these referred to as “peeping tom” or “invasion of privacy” offences and they range from cameras hidden in public facilities, such as a change room or bathroom, to photos being taken of victims in public places like playgrounds, at grocery stores, or while on the beach. “Upskirts” are another kind of voyeurism, with perpetrators secretly taking pictures up women’s skirts or dresses.

The common link to these crimes is that victims do not know someone is photographing or recording them for a sexual purpose. They haven’t consented to these actions.

Just because you’re out in public, does not mean you agree to be filmed.

Although violence isn’t usually involved, people who experience voyeurism can often be left feeling violated, fearful for their privacy and safety, and angry or embarrassed about what they have been through. Voyeurism can be traumatic and leave damaging effects that last beyond the actual incident. Some people describe feeling haunted by what happened and being unable to trust others.

It’s important to know, as with any kind of sexual crime, it is not your fault.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled on a case that involved a high school teacher who secretly filmed students using a pen-camera, putting in more legal protections against voyeurism. The Court found that although people – and in this specific case, students – might be photographed or filmed in public, it isn’t realistic to expect this is done for sexual reasons. This decision better ensures that when recording technology is used to prey on people in public spaces, the perpetrator will face criminal penalties.

If you’re concerned that you have been filmed or photographed without your consent, remember, you have the right to protect and defend your privacy.

Justice Beyond Jail?
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When we read or hear about cases of sexual harassment or assault in the news, the focus is usually on criminal charges, the kind where outcomes are decided by a judge and jury and the accused might be convicted or jailed. The unfortunate truth is, with the criminal system, the well-being of trauma survivors – the “victims” – is not a top priority. One of our earlier posts talks about how few sexual assault cases are actually investigated by the police and the low number that make it to criminal court. In addition, the trauma survivor is not directly represented in these types of cases. During a criminal trial, a survivor can be called on to publicly testify about their experiences, which can be re-traumatizing and involve invasive questioning in front of an audience. As a result, survivors are often left feeling powerless.

If you’re seeking justice, even after a criminal case is over, you could pursue a civil case. In civil court, it’s about finding different solutions that hold the abuser (and potentially others) responsible for their actions. Part of that process, and contrary to the criminal system, will be to choose a lawyer you feel comfortable with and that you trust. This is important, since you’ll need to talk about your experiences and share details with them that could make you feel uncomfortable or triggered.

When selecting a lawyer, here are a few key things to consider:

You are in charge

Your lawyer should acknowledge that you lead the way and that it’s up to you if and when you want to move forward with a case. A good lawyer will explain each step of the civil litigation process and ensure you understand their advice before making any decisions. You deserve to feel empowered when you share your story, which includes deciding with who you meet with at the firm and understanding why certain questions are asked.

Look for support

You’ve been through an extremely difficult and traumatic time, and you may need a wider support system to help find ways to cope with these experiences. Your lawyer not only helps with your legal questions, but can also point you to referrals for therapists or counsellors and local support groups.

It’s your interview, too

When you first speak with a lawyer about a potential case, it’s an introductory interview of sorts. This is your opportunity to ask about their background with cases like yours and to get a feel for how comfortable you are sharing your experiences with them. Think about the kind of lawyer you’d like to work with: do you want someone who is business-like and more formal, or someone with a warmer approach when talking with you? This first meeting is the perfect chance for you to understand what you’re looking for in a lawyer.

Going through a legal case of any kind is not easy, but your lawyer should help prepare you for the process and provide you with support at every turn. You need to feel confident in your choice of who you work with, knowing they will find a balance between being your legal service provider and someone you’ve entrusted with your story.

Trust in Yourself
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After a sexual assault, it’s not uncommon for an abuser to try and discourage you from talking about the experience. It’s a tactic meant to silence you and make you question what happened. It can keep you locked in an abusive setting, but also makes sure that you don’t feel comfortable speaking out or finding help following the assault.

You might hear phrases like:

“It’s your word against mine”
“No one will believe you”
“If you tell anyone, I’ll …”

Standing up to someone who has sexually assaulted you can be very difficult, especially if you’re being intimidated by threatening language. But there are steps you can take that may help reassure you of your recollection of the experience and keep track of any harassment you endure after the assault.

  1. Document any inappropriate behaviour in writing. Keep things your abuser may send, like photographs, text messages or emails, and store them in a safe place. If you can print them out, make several hard copies.

  2. Talk to someone you trust, such as a counsellor or friend. If you feel comfortable, share with them the things your abuser is sending you, too.

  3. Try to remain confident in the fact that you know what happened. It will not be easy, particularly if you’re being shamed or made to be kept silent, but it’s important to know that just because someone doesn’t want you to believe it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

These can all help put your story into context and may assist you down the line if you choose to pursue a legal case against your abuser. Give yourself the opportunity to feel better by believing in your own memories. You deserve to trust in yourself.

Fallout: Mental Health and the #MeToo Movement

Surviving sexual assault or abuse goes long past the physical effects of the experience. The emotional well-being and mental health impacts can be felt for weeks, months, years or perhaps become something for survivors to manage the rest of their lives. 

It isn't unusual for someone who survives this type of trauma to feel a loss of power or control over their body, which can have a profound emotional reaction that many find hard to cope with every day. Flashbacks, memories and seemingly small reminders can cause a resurgence of these feelings. Even the mostly helpful #metoo press coverage can bring back traumatic experiences for those who have endured them. 

Common emotional effects of sexual violence or abuse include:

  • Self-blame, feeling as though the survivor could have done something differently

  • A sense of vulnerability or feeling unsafe, even in a secure environment

  • Feelings of shame or embarrassment about the assault experience

  • Persisting anger or frustration about what happened

None of these are signs of weakness; they are signs of survival. Coming to terms with what happened takes time and can be very difficult. 

People who survive severe trauma sometimes experience major anxiety, struggles of addiction or significant personality changes. These signs may not appear right away. It may be some months or more before these effects begin to manifest, and even longer before the reasons why are recognized. 

The consequences on survivors’ mental health and the support someone might need can differ from person to person. There is no one way to help an individual who has lived through sexual abuse. Although the specific needs of each person may be different, one thing is certain: helping someone on the road to healing is about being open, understanding, and listening with compassion. 

A Workplace Epidemic

Sexual harassment is real, and no one should feel unsafe at in their workplace. In Ontario, harassment includes repeated behaviours like making suggestive comments or requests of you, phone calls or emails that make you uncomfortable, and showing you explicit photos or materials. Your employer is required to protect you from this kind of behaviour. Unfortunately, the reality is that more than 40% of women face sexual harassment in their workplace.

If you’re a woman who is being, or has been, sexually harassed at work, what can you do about it?

Power is a very serious dynamic at play when it comes to workplace sexual harassment, whether it’s a colleague, boss or even a client who is acting inappropriately towards you.

The first thing to do is to carefully document the harassment or inappropriate behaviour:

  1. Write down what’s being offered to you or asked of you, and if you started getting treated differently at your workplace as a result.

  2. Did anyone see or hear what happened who could back up your experiences? Don’t worry if there wasn’t – harassers tend to act out in ways or places where no one is a witness, knowing that what they’re doing is wrong.

  3. If texts, emails, letters or other types of physical proof of the harassment are available, gather them and make copies if possible; don’t delete anything that may support your experiences if you decide to seek help to stop the behaviour.

If you have experienced harassment at work, you may want to take legal action. The law can help protect you if you’re currently being harassed at work or it can help achieve justice for pain and losses endured because of someone’s sexually inappropriate behaviours.

Power is a very serious dynamic.

Remember, it’s not your fault if you’ve been sexually harassed. You deserve to work in a safe environment. And we stand with you.



Self-Care for Trauma Survivors
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Surviving trauma can be a lifelong struggle. When your trust is broken, it leaves an impact that can alter your view of the world and your future. Specific sights, sounds and feelings experienced during your trauma can be brought back up when you’re exposed to similar sensations later in life. Sometimes disclosure – sharing your story – can help you work through these difficult memories.

If you choose to tell your story, remember:

Be Patient with Yourself

First and foremost, take all the time you need. It’s up to you to decide with whom you share your story. Many people find that sharing their experiences can provide some emotional relief and comfort, but it can also be difficult to convey what happened or how you’re feeling. Writing down what you want to say may help with the process.

You're Not Alone

There are many people available to listen. You can choose to disclose what happened to you to a loved one, like a family member or close friend, or a professional, such as a counsellor, lawyer or crisis line. If you do speak to someone in a more “official” kind of role, they are trained to work with people who have survived sexual abuse or violence, which can be helpful because their focus will be on understanding and listening to you.

Your Feelings Matter

It’s OK to seek help and support any time after you come forward. Telling your story can bring out feelings that may be difficult to cope with. Don’t hesitate to seek out emotional support from a trusted family member or friend, or from a professional who can offer counselling or mental health care.

Above all, your well-being is the most important part of the disclosure process. Take your time, find someone you trust, and build your support network. You deserve to be heard.



Safe Places in a Small World
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Talking to someone about your experience with sexual abuse or assault can be extremely difficult, especially if you come from a small community and you aren’t comfortable with everyone knowing details about what happened.

First, it’s important to know that you are making a brave choice to share your story and seek support.

You deserve the opportunity to feel heard in a space where your privacy is protected. Whether it occurred last week, last year or decades ago, there are resources available to help connect you with people who will listen, with compassion.

Reaching Out

There are many ways to access counselling or support in your own community, with organizations that are committed to keeping what you share private and focused on your emotional well-being. Many organizations offer services that include 24-hour telephone help lines, individual and/or group counselling, accompaniment to hospitals, and police or court advocacy. Throughout Ontario, from major cities to smaller towns, help is available.

Feeling Safe

It’s completely understandable that when you choose to speak about what happened to you, you may want it to be in a private setting where you run a much lower risk of seeing someone you know, especially if you are seeking legal advice. That’s where contacting a firm outside of your town can be particularly helpful. Not only is there less potential for a conflict of interest, it’s more likely that your confidentiality can be safeguarded as your case advances through the legal system.

Your Support System

If you need immediate help, you can call a crisis phone line in your area or visit one of the 35 sexual assault/domestic violence treatment centres across Ontario for support. You don’t need an OHIP card to access these services and they’re led by staff who are trained to help survivors recover. Through these sources, you can also meet and connect with other women who have faced sexual abuse or assault. Knowing there are others who have overcome similar experiences as you may be helpful as you navigate through the trauma that can come with sexual violence.

Remember, you are not alone. You deserve to be heard.

We stand with you.

#metoo, but what now?
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Coming forward with your experience of sexual abuse, harassment or assault is brave and it can also be a very difficult decision to make. This might even be the first time you’ve considered talking about what happened and wondering what your legal rights are.

It is our role to help make this choice as easy, safe and comfortable for you as possible. If you’re thinking about reaching out for advice, there are a few things you may want to consider beforehand:

Your Experience, Your Words.

You’ll want to have a brief outline of your experiences, either in mind or maybe written or typed out, and prepared to share with a lawyer. The aim here is to start getting you comfortable with telling your story, especially if this is the one of the first times you’re talking about what you’ve been through. Having this outline will also help both you and your potential legal team better understand your case and plan for the future. You don’t need to include explicit details and there is no obligation for you to share anything you do not want to, but, at minimum, you will need to provide your full name and the name of the person(s) who hurt you, so that both parties involved are clearly identified.

The Right Advocate for You.

Part of this initial contact will involve a conflict check. This simply means the law firm searches for any possible conflicts within their client roster, based on the names you've provided. Though a very rare occurrence, if a conflict is discovered, you will be referred to other trusted legal teams who can represent you, to ensure you're fully supported if you choose to move forward.

Your Justice.

Most importantly, is there something you hope to gain through this process? You definitely don’t need to have this set in stone, but an idea of what sort of outcome you’d like or why you want to speak with a lawyer can be helpful.

"It is our role to help make this choice as easy, safe and comfortable for you as possible."

Caroline Fretwell                           

Cases of sexual assault, abuse and harassment can bring up memories from years or decades past, and that pain, trauma and feelings long thought dealt with can resurface. Anything discussed about your experience is kept between you and the law firm, and it's up to you how much to share in this introduction.

Above all, you don’t have to move forward with a case or lawyer, even if you reach out to seek advice. Your comfort and peace of mind is the priority, and we will respect every choice you make. 

Caroline Fretwell
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied?
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In Canada, police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault reports as “unfounded” – meaning they believe the crime didn't happen or there wasn’t enough evidence to investigate. Plus only 20 per cent of the cases that do move to criminal court end up with the abuser in jail. With these kinds of odds, it’s understandable that a survivor would hesitate to come forward with their story. 

But there are alternatives to criminal court that survivors can pursue to seek their rightful justice for the pain they have endured. One way is through civil litigation. With criminal cases, justice typically equals jail time. Civil lawsuits can allow survivors to define “justice served” for themselves.

A civil lawsuit may help cover medical expenses and income lost due to the assault or sexual misconduct, maybe even giving some survivors a sense of closure. Plus, in civil litigation the survivor’s comfort is a top priority – something very different to criminal cases.

If a survivor is involved in a criminal process, they are bound by the investigation’s time limits and extreme evidence requirements; but in civil litigation, there isn’t as strict a clock to work against. This allows a legal team to thoroughly examine the case, assessing each and every opportunity for the survivor to seek justice. It’s about finding solutions that hold the person (and potentially others) accountable for their horrific actions, without causing the survivor further stress. There is no jury deciding the outcome of the case in a public courtroom, and there are boundaries in place to safeguard survivors from seeing their abusers. Discussion is limited as much as possible lawyer-to-lawyer as a legal team would not want a survivor being put in a position where they’re asked to make difficult decisions that could impact their peace of mind.

An advantage of making a civil claim is that, in Ontario, there is no deadline (a.k.a. a statute of limitations) between when the assault or harassment happened and when a survivor comes forward. Even if what happened took place more than 30 years ago, a survivor still has the right to be heard and compensated for their pain. 

"Even if what happened took place more than 30 years ago, a survivor still has the right to justice."

One last thing to know is if the abuser was already found guilty and charged for their crimes, a survivor can still choose to pursue a civil case since this is about their rightful compensation and personal trauma. And because a criminal court already found the person guilty, it’s likely a civil case would have the same positive outcome. 

No matter when a survivor chooses to come forward with their story, it can be a retraumatizing experience. It’s part of a legal team’s role to understand, listen with compassion and reassure the survivor that what happened is deserving of justice. 

A Survivor's Support System
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Living through sexual trauma - be it harassment, abuse or assault - is incredibly challenging. Survivors usually face all kinds of pushback if they step forward to share their stories. They can downplay the impact of their experiences and might not want to believe the treatment was actually abusive. Survivors may feel shame, embarrassment, guilt, fear or a mix of many other emotions that prevent them from speaking up. When someone has experienced sexual violence or misconduct, there is no “right” way to react to and cope with what they endured. But there are ways you can show your support for the survivor. 

Respect boundaries

If a survivor has chosen to tell you their experience, it’s a major step and one that may open doors to other healing. When talking about what happened, try paying close attention to their body language and voice for signs of anxiety or stress. If the person you’re speaking with is uncomfortable, try to end the conversation gently and reassure them that what’s been shared is private. Don’t push for details and let them know that both they and what they went through are important and matter. What the survivor experienced may have happened yesterday, weeks ago or even from their childhood. No matter when the abuse took place, it’s valid and deserves to be recognized. 

Ask for advice

One way survivors can seek justice is through civil litigation but it can be a nerve wracking thought, to consider asking for a lawyer’s advice. It’s no secret that sexual misconduct and assault are under-reported, and women have bravely shared their experiences only to not be believed or be told what happened wasn’t that serious. However, a lawyer’s role is to take on these concerns and not hesitate to stand up for the survivor. This can be a reassuring thing for a survivor, to know there is a legal team that has their best interest in mind and who will protect them if they want to pursue a case. 

Offer support

While being supportive, the survivor must be in control of their own healing. You can find resources and information, which is very helpful, but never put pressure on them to pursue specific options. You can also offer to attend meetings or discussions with them, to show your support, especially if they decide to speak with a lawyer. Having someone they trust, by their side, can be reassuring and comforting. Provide them with some tools to decide how to move forward and don’t judge, believing the survivor knows what they need for their healing or closure. 

"No matter when the abuse took place, it’s valid and deserves to be recognized."

Most importantly, if you hear the survivor blame themselves for the harassment or assault, tell them it was never their fault. Remind them how important they are to the people in their life, how much they mean to you and how much better the world is with them in it.