Hope Haven of the Lowcountry helps sex abuse victims heal, thrive

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Hope Haven of the Lowcountry helps sex abuse victims heal, thrive

By CATHY CARTER HARLEY
charley@beaufortgazette.com
Published Sunday, April 15, 2012   |  992 Words  |  

Editor's note: Names of the abuse victims have been changed to protect their identities.

Michelle remembers her grandfather as a charming man, a pillar of the community and a church leader who taught Sunday school. He gave her pocket money around age 5. He took her camping at Hunting Island State Park.

She also remembers the sexual abuse he inflicted upon her between the ages of 3 and 13.

"One horrible memory was when my grandmother walked in on him doing something to me and she told me to run," Michelle said. "I remember crouching down outside of the camper while he beat her."

Repressing all those memories caused Michelle depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. For more than a decade, she sought help from six therapists with different points of view -- from the spiritual counselor who said God was going to heal her instantly to another who encouraged her to keep it a secret.

When she was married at age 24, the thought of sex made her nauseated.

Flashbacks of the abuse continued and became clearer, explaining her feelings of shame, loss of self worth and suicide.

While she was going through a divorce, Michelle finally found the help she needed through intensive therapy at Hope Haven of the Lowcountry. She learned how to deal with her emotions, process her memories and speak up for herself

"In five months I went from not being able to tell anyone to a place where I can talk about it to someone I don't know, and tell them I was sexually abused," Michelle, now 29, said. "I am not ashamed of it, and it is not my fault."

"Literally I tell Hope Haven they saved my life," she said. "I was living this half-life where I had become numb to everything. I just went numb to deal with the problem."

Her recovery has taken time and was a difficult journey, she said.

"Now, I'm happy and every day I am happier," she said

Having earned her master's degree, she hopes to one day help other victims. "There will be a day when I can walk beside somebody who is going through what I am going through, and I will tell them they will be OK," Michelle said.

"Not only can you live after this has happened, but you can thrive and have a life," she said. "I am not just a survivor of sexual abuse, but a thriver after sexual abuse," she said, quoting from a book she is writing as part of her healing process.

HELPING VICTIMS AND FAMILIES

Hope Haven's therapists are trained by the National Crime Victims Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. During the typical 12 to 18
often-weekly sessions, victims are taught ways to manage their thoughts, such as writing an "abusive narrative," a four-page document about their trauma.

Parents also receive therapy on how to respond to younger abuse victims who often react to trauma with explosive behavior.

The nonprofit organization, which began in 2003, has grown from three staff members and a $230,000 budget to nine full-time staff and four contracted employees and a $623,000 budget.

Hope Haven facilitates a monthly multidisciplinary team meeting to coordinate the investigation, protection, treatment and prosecution of child abuse cases within the 14th Judicial Circuit. Participation in the case review allows for the sharing of information and expertise across disciplines as well as recommendations to aid the child involved.

Last year Hope Haven saw 466 victims for its five-county coverage area of Beaufort,
Jasper, Hampton, Colleton and Allendale counties. Of those 466 victims, 70 percent were children.

The median age of clients served by Hope Haven is 8 years old with the youngest victim 18-months-old.

As of this week, 20 victims were on the waiting list to receive help from Hope Haven.

EVEN YOUNGEST VICTIMS SPEAK OUT

Clicking her black patent leather shoes together in a swinging motion as she occasionally squirmed around on an oversized chair, Emily looked like any other 7-year-old.

But when as she spoke about the family friend who touched her "private parts" when she was 6, Emily seemed to become stronger and braver, someone who is learning the skills of how to cope with the guilt, shame and anger of being sexually assaulted.

After several months of treatment at Hope Haven, she is prepared to testify in court against her attacker.

Emily is one of about 300 childhood sexual assault victims each year in the five-county area served by Hope Haven of the Lowcountry: Children's Advocacy and Rape Crisis Center.

Annually, about 150 adults report sexual assaults as well.

Hope Haven of the Lowcountry has been helping sexual assault victims in Beaufort County for 10 years. Since its founding, the organization has been able to change the way a victim is treated. Before, a victim might have seen as many as 15 people in Charleston before they got help.

Today a victim talks to three people at Hope Haven, which offers a homey-type atmosphere instead of a cold and scary police station. Special forensic interview rooms equipped with video cameras and two-way mirrors allow the victim to tell their detailed story to a therapist while a detective, social worker and a state's attorney listen.

A specially trained physician is also on staff and a family advocate is assigned to link the family to resources and keep them informed about legal and court dates.

"It was a broken system," said Shauw Chin Capps, Hope Haven's executive director. "We make sure the system is designed to protect then and does not re-victimize them."