State's first Justice Institute and Victims Services Center opens
CUTLINE: Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, left, introduces S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who delivered the keynote address during Thursday's grand opening of the 14th Circuit Victims Services Center. The center, the first of its kind in South Carolina, brings together a multi-disciplinary team of professionals and organizations to provide services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes against vulnerable populations. The facilities include an exam room and forensic interview room.
OKATIE, SC (Oct. 10, 2019) -- For many years, children in South Carolina’s 14th Judicial Circuit who were victims of sexual assault had to travel all the way to Charleston for a forensic examination.
And many have had to repeat the story of their ordeal once they arrived.
Now, a first-in-the-state center is equipped to ease the travel burden and spare many child victims the trauma of repeatedly recounting their experience. The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office and its partners on Thursday held a grand opening of the 14th Circuit Victims Services Center, which includes a new medical examination room and the hiring of a pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner.
“Until recently, there was no one in the 14th Circuit certified to conduct a forensic exam on a child,” Solicitor Duffie Stone noted. “Today, we can not only provide that service, but other social services victims need mere footsteps away.”
The Victims Services Center provides assistance to victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and other crimes against vulnerable populations. Although there are other victim centers in South Carolina, they lack an exam room, the presence of a prosecutorial agency or both.
“You’re making the system more efficient …a more centralized system that allows you to collaborate and work across the region, the municipalities, the counties … in the largest judicial circuit in the state,” said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who delivered the keynote address at Thursday’s opening. “It is very different from Hilton Head to Hampton. To be able to work together and collaborate and bring all these organizations together to better serve the men and women, and especially the children, of this community is amazing.”
The Victims Services Center opened in November 2018, when several partners moved into rent-free office space inside the Solicitor’s Office headquarters in Okatie. Lowcountry Legal Volunteers, Hopeful Horizons, the Child Abuse Prevention Association and the Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth provide consultations and services just down a hallway from the Solicitor’s Office Special Victims Unit prosecutorial team.
Thursday’s grand opening highlighted additional services recently added to the center. A new camera system in a children’s interview room can be viewed via closed circuit by other professionals in an adjacent room. This reduces the number of times children have to recount their stories, a process that can re-traumatize some victims. The room is also available to law enforcement officers who want to interview child witnesses in an environment less intimidating than a police station.
The center also features a fully equipped medical-exam room. It is staffed by Heather Dollar, a fulltime sexual assault nurse examiner, also a first in the state, thanks to a Victims of Crime Act grant and support from local philanthropic organizations like the Zonta Club of Hilton Head Island and the Kiwanis Club of Bluffton.
Prior to the launch of the 14th Circuit Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Program, children were forced to travel long distances for acute treatment. This program aims to mitigate that traumatic experience.
“There are only 76 SANE nurses in the state,” Dollar said. “Recent data shows that only 19 percent of children in need of an acute medical exams are seen. Our goal is to close that service gap while providing specialized care to the victim and collect the evidence needed to aid in the prosecution of offenders.”
Wilson and Stone were among the speakers who addressed about 100 invited guests Thursday.
Also, at the podium Thursday were Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, Brad Zervas of Lowcountry Legal Volunteers, Kristin Dubrowski of Hopeful Horizons and Jessica Chapman of CAPA. Bikers Against Child Abuse was also represented at Thursday’s event.
“Solicitor Stone created this space for us, which really is allowing great access to justice for all It’s definitely a win-win,” said Anne Caywood, the executive attorney with Lowcountry Legal Volunteers. “It just made perfect sense for us to be here in this space and location. Okatie is centrally located and is better for our clients, many of whom are faced with transportation issues. Being here secures our growth and is beneficial to our clients. It allows us to collaborate with our fellow service providers and increases awareness by virtue of being in association with the Solicitor’s Office.”
Staff from the following organizations/agencies offer services within the VSC:
· The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office is the chief prosecuting agency for Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties. Our primary role is to prosecute all cases in General Sessions Court, certain misdemeanors in Magistrate’s Court and all criminal cases in Family Court. Services to crime victims were expanded in 2017 to include a Special Victims Unit, which focuses on domestic violence, child and elder abuse and sexual assault cases.
· The 14th Circuit Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Program provides medical examinations to those who have been sexually assaulted by utilizing a fulltime SANE nurse trained to treat pediatric, adolescent and adult victims.
· Lowcountry Legal Volunteers provides free, critical legal services and education through community volunteers and retired lawyers to low income and families in Beaufort, Hampton, and Jasper counties. LCLV handles civil cases in the following areas: adoption, child custody, visitation, and child support, divorce, names changes, simple consumer matters, eviction actions, lease termination, simple wills and probate.
· Hopeful Horizons is a children’s advocacy, domestic violence and rape crisis center serving the 14th Circuit. Hopeful Horizons offers a 24-hour crisis line and emergency shelter for victims of intimate partner violence and their children, court accompaniment, adult and children’s counseling and case management. They offer legal assistance and victim advocacy in Family Court to include the filing of Orders of Protection and restraining orders.
· The Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth is a community prevention coalition in Southern Beaufort County that brings together all sectors of the community to identify and implement strategies that promote positive youth development by addressing substance use/abuse and related risk behaviors. LCAHY is a recipient of a Drug-Free Communities Support Program Grant.
· The Child Abuse Prevention Association provides prevention and intervention programs that targets breaking the cycle of child abuse and neglect through school-based safety and character development education programs for children, teen pregnancy prevention programs, and a variety of parent education and support programs. Since opening in 1985, the Open Arms Children’s Home has been home to more than 2,100 children.
· Bikers Against Child Abuse exists with the intent to create a safer environment for abused children. These bikers empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live. They lend support and work in conjunction with local and state officials who are already in place to protect children.