One of the few full-service Rape Crisis Centers in the state of Georgia recently opened in Glynn County.
The Connie Smith Rape Crisis Center, operated by Safe Harbor, provides the services needed to help survivors of sexual assault heal both physically and emotionally.
Only 31 rape crisis centers exist in Georgia, covering the state’s 159 counties. Of those 31 centers, only a few are considered full-service, which means they provide a nurse who specializes in sexual assault exams, counselors who offer individual and group therapy and other services.
The Safe Harbor team has been in the new center at 3215 Shrine Road in Brunswick for about a year. The center is split between the Rape Crisis Center and Safe Harbor’s Children’s Advocacy Center.
The Rape Crisis Center became full-service about a month ago.
“For right now, I’m just trying to get it off the ground and let people know that the services are here,” said Andrea Belton, the center’s volunteer coordinator and community prevention specialist. “That’s important.”
The Rape Crisis Center is staffed with a nurse, counselors and advocates who provide a full range of services to rape survivors.
The center runs a 24-hour crisis line that offers support and information.
One of the few SANE nurses, or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, in Coastal Georgia works in the center, and on-staff counselors trained in trauma- focused therapy offer individual and group counseling.
“We try and just support the victim in whatever they want to do,” Belton said. “So if they want to report, then we can definitely give them the who’s, the how, the when on that, but if they don’t want to report, we can definitely support them in that too and just give them a lot of other information.”
Before the center became full-service, the program offered counseling and referral services but did not have a certified SANE nurse on staff.
SANE nurses are trained to collect DNA samples and record survivor testimony. They’re also trained to support patients and help them process the emotional pain of a sexual assault.
“She’s a very special component to this program … Most rape crisis programs don’t have a SANE nurse,” Belton said.
There is a nationwide shortage of SANE nurses, and these nurses are particularly rare in rural areas.
Deborah Haley, the center’s SANE nurse, recently completed the rigorous, lengthy training required to earn SANE nurse certification. She said she is the only registered SANE nurse in the county.
“We have the special ability to provide a lot of emotional support that they may not be able to have time for in the ER setting,” Haley said.
In a hospital emergency room, nurses have to take care of multiple patients at once, and those patients come in with a wide variety of medical concerns.
“Whereas, they come here and they are our only focus the whole time they are here,” she said. “We respect their decisions, their choices. We can offer them their choices as far as testing for STIs, pregnancy, counseling on both of those issues, how at risk they may be. And then it’s their choice on how they want to proceed from there.”
The staff will help a survivor report to police and pursue charges, if that’s his or her decision.
Belton said the center’s staff support the decision, whatever it is, and offer whatever follow-up services may be needed.
“We can also reach out to their primary care providers if they want, and let them know what’s happened,” Haley said. “Or not, if they don’t want it.”
Support for survivors
The center is named for Connie Smith, who died in 1998. Smith devoted 20 years of her life to helping rape victims recover and heal.
She added the first 24-hour rape crisis line to the Coastal Area Mental Health Center, and she helped develop a protocol at the local hospital emergency room for the gathering of rape kit evidence.
Smith also wrote training programs on the complexities of rape and the toll it takes on victims.
The Connie Smith Rape Crisis Center entrance is discreet, and the privacy of visitors is maintained at all times, Belton said.
“Even the waiting area’s very discreet,” she said. “We will only have just one family or one person in here at a time.”
The goal, she said, is to make the center a place where sexual assault survivors feel comfortable coming to report an incident or receive services in the aftermath of an assault.
“A lot of the reason why people don’t choose to report is because it’s a small town and if you go to the hospital you’re bound to see somebody that you know,” Belton said. “We just try to make it as comfortable as possible.”
The center also has a bathroom upstairs where victims can take a shower after an exam.
“I haven’t been to one rape crisis center yet that has a shower facility,” Belton said. “A lot of people after having something like that happen to you, the first thing they want to do is take a shower.”
For those who want to go through with the evidence collection process, though, it’s better to wait to take a shower after the SANE nurse has completed the exam, she said.
“If someone reports immediately and comes to the center for an exam, a shower is available for them to use,” she said.
The center has clothes available to change into after the exam, and Belton encouraged community members to donate clothing articles, especially men and women’s underwear.
“If people want to contribute, especially unopened underwear of all sizes, men and women’s, we would appreciate that,” she said.
One in five women and one in 71 men report being raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Glynn County police reported 20 cases of forcible rape in 2017. Ten reports of rape were taken by the Brunswick Police.
But Belton said the number of sexual assaults occurring locally is without a doubt much higher, as most victims choose not to report.
“The statistical data shows that it’s happening, and if it’s happening we need to let people know that this service is there,” she said. “A lot of people may not reach out because they don’t think there’s anything there to support them.”
Rape is also the most under-reported crime. According to the NSVR Center, 63 percent or rapes are not reported to police.
The Rape Crisis Center’s staff intends to not only spread awareness of its services but also educate the community about sexual assault.
Misconceptions about sexual assault are still widely believed, Belton said. People often think rape is only committed by strangers, she said, and victims regularly blame themselves, feeling that they brought it upon themselves because they were drinking alcohol or wearing certain kinds of clothing.
“I want to disband those rape myths,” Belton said. “That’s just a part of educating the community … You can’t even properly begin the educate until you disband those myths.”
In truth, seven out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Another misconception is that rape happens solely to women.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 91 percent of victims of rape and sexual assault are women. Nine percent of victims are men.
The recent #MeToo campaign, a movement in which people who’ve been affected by sexual violence and harassment have been sharing their own stories, has had a clear impact on the calls Belton has already received on the center’s hotline.
“A lot of the calls that I’ve received personally have been basically about people having a resurgence of memory,” she said. “People are seeking out counseling services or wanting to know if we provide group counseling sessions, which we do have a counselor that will hold group sessions right now.”
Community support will be needed to help the center operate.
The center is seeking volunteers to undergo 20 hours of advocate training and help operate the hotline.
The Georgia Network To End Sexual Assault will be in Glynn County starting Feb. 26 to offer free training.
Those interested in being trained can register online at gnesa.org or call 404-815-5261.
Belton said the Rape Crisis Center aims primarily to provide support — in whatever form it’s needed — to sexual assault survivors.
“A lot of times, just having the information from somebody that you can trust, somebody who knows and is an expert in what they are talking about, it makes a difference,” she said. “It makes you feel more comfortable, more at ease. It doesn’t solve the problem, but we can definitely start and point you in the right direction.”
Those with questions can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The hotline is open 24/7, and the number is 1-800-205-7037.