Helping the Victims

PARKERSBURG – Help and support is available for sexual assault victims.

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Tracy Handley, sexual assault advocate with the local Family Crisis Intervention Center has been on the job for about a year, but formerly worked with the domestic violence victims’ shelter and assault victims for about three years prior to that.

“A large part of it is awareness and public education. We let them know they are not alone and that help is available,” Handley said.

The shelter, headquartered in Parkersburg, serves Wood, Calhoun, Jackson, Pleasants, Ritchie, Roane, Tyler and Wirt counties, providing services including a 24-hotline, 1-800-794-2335 or 428-2333, information, referrals, crisis intervention, peer counseling, emotional support, a safe haven for victims and their children. There is individual counseling available on a referral basis, legal advocacy, case management, support groups and parenting classes.

“Services for sexual assault victims have always been a part of the center’s mission, we were able to get some funding this past year which enabled us to focus more on this issue,” said Emily Larkins, executive director with the Family Crisis Intervention Center.

The funding was made available through the Foundation for Rape and Information Services, which has nine centers in West Virginia.

“Those centers, which focus on rape victims, agreed to give up some of their own funding to try and fill in areas where were there gaps in services,” Larkins said.

The local center received about $20,000 in funds to help cover the advocate salary and other expenses related to providing the services.

“Tracy also goes out to high schools and colleges, and other places to provide awareness,” Handley said.

Advocates are called at all hours to assist victims, usually responding to the hospital after a victim has been brought into the emergency room. Handley sees both male and female victims, although she said the majority of the victims she sees are women.

“In the last year we’ve had about 20 sexual assault victims, men and women, predominately women,” Handley said.

Reactions of victims vary, she said.

“Everyone handles trauma differently,” Handley said. “Some don’t want to talk at all, some refuse to file a report, and decline our services. But most of the time they want me there, if nothing else just for support.”

Handley said it’s often more difficult for male victims to talk about what happened to them. She said most of the male victims were attacked by another male.

“Statistically men tend to report less,” Handley said.

In most cases, Handley said the victims know their attacker. “It’s often someone they have formerly been intimate with, or have some past association with, but that’s not always the case.”

“I also work with the police and with the victim through the court system if the case goes to court,” Handley said. “If they need assistance getting a domestic violence protection order, or a personal safety order, I assist them with that.”

Personal safety orders have been an option for about two years.

“They are designed to be of assistance more in cases of sexual assault/stalking victims,” Handley said.

The advocates make victims aware of services available to them, stay with through the process and help them develop a personal safety plan, Larkins said.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of cases. I think more people in the community are aware of our services for sexual assault and the number of reports may be higher partially because of the awareness,” Larkins said.

While the center is seeing an increase in the number of victims seeking help, the advocates are also seeing escalation in the violence involved in the cases.

The center director said she is working closely with Prosecutor Jason Wharton and hospital officials to form a Sexual Assault Response Team to coordinate efforts.

“We used to have such a team several years back, but we haven’t had one for awhile,” Larkins said. “We want to provide a coordinated community response, we are trying to better serve and improve services to the victims.”

Larkins said about 40 percent of all incidents involve some type of domestic violence and or sexual assault.

“Tracy is available around the clock. There is a time limit on rape victim evidence, they need to get to the victim as quickly as possible in order to gather as much evidence as possible,” Larkins said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, sexual violence is a very serious public health problem that affects millions of women and men. In the United States, one in five women and one in 71 men have been raped in their lifetime and nearly one in two women and one in five men have experienced other forms of sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Statistics underestimate the problem because many victims do not tell police, family or friends about the violence, according to the CDC.

Sexual violence impacts health in many ways and can lead to long-term physical and mental health problems. Victims may experience chronic pain, headaches, and sexually transmitted diseases. They are often fearful or anxious and may have problems trusting others. Anger and stress can lead to eating disorders, depression, and even suicidal thoughts, according to CDC officials.