Source of strength: Sexual assault advocate works to give power back to victims

By Tiffanie Reynolds |

The whir of her cell phone, set to vibrate, goes off beside Susan Peters’ bed. She picks it up, already knowing the call is from the domestic violence shelter Betty Griffin House. She walks to the bathroom, puts on her already-folded change of clothes and drives to Flagler Hospital.

For Peters, it’s another night as a sexual assault advocate volunteer.

Working with the staff members of the Betty Griffin House, Peters is part of a group that stays on call during weekday or weekend nights, when staff wouldn’t be available to take care of calls through their hotline. As a local retiree, Peters takes either week or weekend shifts and sits beside one to three victims a week. Some calls will only keep her at Flagler Hospital for two hours, while other calls can have her there for as long as six or seven hours a night.

From 1994 to 2010, cases of rape have declined 58 percent, according to the report “Female Victims and Sexual Violence” by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But, in 2010, only 35 percent of cases were reported to police, and out of those cases reported, only 12 percent led to an arrest, according to the same study. In St. Johns County, 30 to 35 cases of sexual assault and rape are reported each year to the Betty Griffin House, which provides services for victims of domestic violence through a shelter, counseling and transitional support in St. Johns County.

“That is just the number of women who find the strength to come to either law enforcement or to the ER or to set the process of going through the Rape Crisis Unit and so on. There are many who never do make that call,” said Ruby Hauder, team coordinator for the Sexual Response Team Advocates.

Options of sexual assault victims
Sexual assault advocates are part of the Rape Crisis Unit, a service Betty Griffin House started with Flagler Hospital in 2006. Only a suite of rooms at Flagler Hospital, it provides victims of sexual assault and rape another option when they call the hotline to Betty Griffin House. Many cases are not reported because, for the victim, it means getting the police immediately involved. With Betty Griffin House, the Rape Crisis Unit is sent in response to the victim’s call and takes them to Flagler Hospital.

At the hospital, a forensic nurse and advocate try to get as much information and evidence as they can about the victim’s case. All the information and evidence is then bagged and filed with the Betty Griffin House, where the victim is given a year to decide to use that evidence and report their case to police. In the meantime, the victim is given any physical treatment through the hospital’s ER, and the advocate gives them numbers for counseling as well as other services the Betty Griffin House offers.

As a sexual assault advocate, it is Peters’ job to be an emotional support for the victim. With every trip to the hospital, she carries a recovery bag with a change of clothes and toiletries, just in case the clothes that the victim has on would need to be bagged for evidence. On top of sitting beside the victim during questioning and examination, she serves as a guide for the victim’s next step, providing emotional support, financial support through groceries, gas and clothing gift cards, and shelter, if the victim doesn’t feel safe returning home.

Peters has been an advocate volunteer for two and a half years. In that time, she has seen from mild to severe cases, describing one victim that she met with large blisters on her chest from hot water being thrown on her. Peters’ most frequent cases are drug-induced assault and rape, which are the most difficult to get an accurate report.

“That is not only difficult for the person because of the traumatic event, but, the thing is, ‘I can’t remember. Was it one person, was it multiple people? I can’t remember.’ And that makes the forensic exam more involved also, because, you know, you have to go head-to-toe in that. To look for any evidence that may have been left,” said Peters.

For those cases, the only thing Peters can offer are counseling services, as well as numbers to outreach programs when the victim feels comfortable to talk about their situation.

Supporting others
Even before becoming a sexual assault advocate volunteer, Peters’ work has always been focused on other people. She moved to St. Augustine in 1993, and worked in Hospice before starting her own message therapy clinic in 1997. Besides working with her own clients, she also offered her services to Betty Griffin House as an option of healing to victims.

Unlike her regular clients, the messages she gives to victims helps them to re-learn the difference of appropriate and inappropriate touch. It was coupled with the counseling provided by the Betty Griffin House, and Peters’ goal through these messages was to give power and self-respect back to the victim.

This happened for one woman who scheduled a message through the Betty Griffin House. During the session, she accepted the message, but it was what happened after that impacted Peters the most.

“She just sat up on the table and just started to cry. And, I just let her cry. And then, she just looked at me and she said, ‘You’re the first person that I’ve ever allowed to touch me, and that you have no agenda,'” said Peters.

For her, being a sexual assault advocate volunteer is a calling. A victim herself, she never had services like the Rape Crisis Unit. Also, date rape was thought of as an issue at the time. Her source of strength was her two sons, and it was through taking care of them that she found control in her life again. As a volunteer, she wants to be that source of strength, and to give victims a shorter road to recovery.

“But, I tell you, my hot water heater wasn’t big enough. I just took a lot of showers to, you know, cleanse my body, but also cleanse my mind. And then I kept thinking and looking at my sons, thinking, I have to be together so that I can raise you the way you deserve to be raised. I was fortunate that I was able to do that,” said Peters.

To Peters, crimes like sexual assault and rape aren’t just about the act, but about taking away control. Through her message therapy and now volunteer service, she hopes that she can help bring that power back where it belongs.

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