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Area group marks 20th year of help
Rape Response offers counseling for victims
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Rape Response Inc.

What: 20th Anniversary Reception

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Friday

What: Wine and hors d’oeuvres reception

Where: North Georgia Community Foundation Building Boardroom, 615 Oak St.

For volunteer information and directions:

For 20 years now, local victims of sexual assault have been turning to Rape Response Inc. for medical, psychological and emotional support following an attack.

When sex is used as a weapon, 60 percent of women don’t report the rape to authorities according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

But in 2006, RAINN estimates there were 272,350 victims of sexual assault in the United States who still needed counseling and medical care even if they didn’t want to report the rape to police.

In 1988, Rape Response separated from the Gateway House domestic violence shelter to emerge as a leading advocacy program in the state for sexual assault victims. The Hall County-based agency manages a 24-hour rape crisis hot line, offers to meet women at area hospitals for evidence collection following an attack and helps victims to navigate the criminal justice system when they do choose to press charges against their attackers.

Terri Strayhorn, executive director of Rape Response, said the program served 407 sexual assault victims in 2007, and 95 percent of those were women. The majority of sexual assault victims who seek help through Rape Response are ages 15 to 19, she said.

"There were so many calls that were particularly sexual assault that we felt we could best serve the women of this community better as an agency that concentrated only on sexual violence," Strayhorn said. "... This crime is particular in that women blame themselves or others blame her for what happened to her, such as ‘you shouldn’t have been out at night.’"

While Strayhorn said mothers and friends often don’t mean to make sexual assault victims clam up, their comments often deter women from reporting the crime and seeking counseling to cope with the violent attack. She said one of the primary goals of Rape Response is to help women continue to live quality lives after the attack.

The program’s services are concentrated in Dawson, Hall, Habersham, Lumpkin and White counties, but Strayhorn said victims who need help are not turned away if there is not a rape victim advocacy program in their area. Spanish translators are also on hand at the agency to counsel victims.

Through the crisis hot line last year, volunteers assisted 114 victims and met 64 victims at Northeast Georgia Medical Center or another nearby hospital following an attack. Volunteers and Rape Response leaders helped counsel 70 victims in crisis and accompanied 131 victims through the criminal justice process.

Dana Chapman, director of victim services for Rape Response, said sexual assault victims are often confused because when sex is used as a weapon, it complicates their ability, as well as friends’ and family members’ ability, to cope with the "most unfathomable violation there is."

"It is a very difficult violent crime for anyone to tackle—a doctor, a police officer, a grandmother," Chapman said. "We are so lucky in Hall County because we have units that train especially for this crime."

Chapman trains Rape Response volunteers to man the hot lines and meet victims at hospitals to ease them through the aftermath of the violence. She said the number of sexual assault victims Rape Response has serviced has risen from 236 victims in 2006 to 407 victims in 2007 and 425 victims already in 2008.

Since the agency’s inception, Rape Response leaders have also helped implement a sexual assault victim aftercare program with the Hall County Health Department to provide free pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease tests for victims, who would normally pay $55 to $100 for those services.

"If we’re not there to make sure she continues to receive that kind of care, then nobody is," Strayhorn said.

Rape Response has also been instrumental in implementing sexual assault protocols at law enforcement agencies in their five-county coverage area, Strayhorn said. The protocols ensure that sexual assault victims will be assisted in a professional manner that offers them the opportunity to have evidence of the crime collected. Strayhorn credits local law enforcement agencies with being particularly receptive to creating sexual assault units and understanding the emotional trauma of the crime.

"These officers all have sisters or wives, and they take this crime personally," Strayhorn said.

That’s one of the major changes she feels Rape Response has facilitated in its 20 years.

"Twenty years ago, it wasn’t true that a woman could expect care with dignity. It was a pretty rough time. And that has evolved," Strayhorn said.

To celebrate the agency’s 20 years of service, a public reception is being held 5-7 p.m. Friday at the North Georgia Community Foundation Building Boardroom, 615 Oak St.