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When Helpers Harm: Increasing Safety While Accepting Help

Written by: Kristi Taylor, Education Director

As the Coronavirus has spread and caused tremendous impacts on us as individuals and collectively it has been inspiring to see the good in the world. People coming together and asking how they can help. People sewing masks for perfect strangers. Tiny Libraries being turned into Tiny Food Pantries on the sidewalk. Teddy Bears and Rainbows in windows to create fun and adventure for children. And a grassroots movement of over 7,000 people coming together to provide Mutual Aid to those in our community. This outpouring of love and kindness is exactly what I would expect to see in Tompkins County and I couldn’t be prouder. And while I may not be a great seamstress or have medical training to support those fighting COVID, I can share some information about how those who are vulnerable can access the wonderful generosity in our community while reducing the likelihood of being taken advantage of or harmed by those who prey on vulnerabilities. 

Having worked for over 10 years in the field of domestic and sexual violence, I have come to see how adept those who abuse, sexually assault, and/or traffick are at identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities. This doesn’t mean that those who are victimized are weak or unintelligent or “asking for it”– every single one of us has a vulnerability that could be exploited–but due to the impacts of poverty, systems of oppression, and access to resources some people have more vulnerabilities than others. The current COVID crisis has left many people in challenging positions emotionally and in terms of meeting basic needs. These needs and the vulnerability of asking for help can be manipulated into harmful or dangerous situations.

So, do we not trust anyone? Assume everyone is out to get us? Not accept a generous offer? Absolutely not! But accepting help doesn’t mean that we can’t screen offers and set boundaries that could make us safer and more secure. 

Below are some behaviors to consider before and after accepting assistance from someone. Please know this is not all encompassing and does not guarantee that a person may not still take advantage of your situation. If someone does make the choice to harm or take advantage of you, I need you to hear it was not your fault and you did nothing wrong! 

Red Flag Behaviors:

  • Using a Fake Name or Social Media Account
    • Fake profiles are not always easy to catch but there are lots of guides in the world with common indicators. This article from WikiHow, for example, names some common cues. However, in our current circumstances it may not be uncommon for someone we don’t know or don’t have mutual friends with to contact us. In that case look at the other cues- very few friends, brand new account, name that sounds fake, or a profile picture that doesn’t show a person or seems to be “too perfect”. 
  • Offer is too good to be true or Extravagant
    • In most cases if you are asking for something specific and someone is able to assist with that need, they are not going to add in a lot of unprompted extras or “insist” that you accept the additional things they are offering. If someone is offering to take care of all your needs or current issues, that is generally a red flag behavior and something to be aware of.
  • Persistence or Crossing your Boundaries
    • A person not listening to your “no”, pressing you to accept their offer when you have declined, contacting you frequently or after you’ve let them know you are all set, “asking around” to get your phone number/email when you didn’t provide it, or showing up with additional items without asking first can all be signs of persistence and boundary crossing. Setting and holding boundaries is our right and just because we are in need of support does not mean we have given up our rights. 
  • Becomes angry/rude/frustrated at questions or safety requests
    • If a person reacts negatively to your reasonable requests for boundaries, information, or safety, including: to meet in a public place, to only share Facebook accounts instead of phone numbers, to agree to have a contactless exchange, or to provide you with basic information about who they are; you are seeing a red flag. Someone refusing these requests may not be a safe person to engage with.
  • Asks a lot of personal questions about you and/or your children
    • You do not owe personal details about you, your family, where you live, or your finances to anyone. If someone is asking these types of questions unrelated to your need, especially if they are making you uncomfortable, you have the right to not answer and if they persist after you have asked them to stop it is a red flag.
  • Implies or directly asks for an exchange
    • Under no circumstances should you be expected, convinced, or coerced into providing any kind of return in exchange for the offer. This can include providing photos of kids with toys/treats/etc. that they gave, becoming their friend, having regular communication, or sending sexual photos/acts/videos/etc. If someone is asking or demanding something of a sexual nature in return for a basic need or withholding a basic need until you engage in such an act, it is sexual coercion and may be considered sex trafficking; a state and federal crime. Please contact the Advocacy Center hotline at 607-277-5000 if this has happened to you or been solicited from you for judgement free information and options. 
  • Breaks the rules- “Just for you”
    • Unfortunately, people in positions of power, which includes those who work for “helping” organizations, can also exploit their power. This can look like agreeing to come to your home if it’s not allowed, provide more than your allotment of a resource, pay for something not covered by their organization, or anything else that is against group or organization guidelines. This is a red flag, especially if they are making clear that you must keep it a secret and that they are doing it “just for you”. Oftentimes, this is a strategy to set up future manipulation.
  • Anything that makes you uncomfortable or uneasy!
    • Too often we are taught to ignore our instincts that something feels “off”. This can be especially true for those socialized as women and girls. I’m here to tell you that your instincts are important, worthwhile, and oftentimes- CORRECT! If something does not feel right to you, then something probably isn’t. You are under no obligation to explain why you are ending communications or not accepting an offer. Your “No.” is a complete sentence. 

After reading this you may be thinking that the world is a terrible place and we can’t trust anyone–but I certainly hope not. Truth is, most people are generous, kind, and good intentioned. They do want to help our community and make sure we all get through this together. We can hold that truth while also being mindful of the small percentage of folks who take advantage of someone’s struggles. 

By informing ourselves we become empowered to ask for help, to make informed choices, and to give ourselves permission to politely- or not so politely- set a boundary if someone is trying to harm us. 

Please know you also don’t have to go it alone. There are wonderful group moderators and volunteers, community organizations, and Advocacy Center staff that can support you if you have a need or concerning/harmful interaction with another person. We will all need each other to get through this challenging time and, based on what I have seen so far, we are off to a great start.