Lowcountry advocates collaborate to fight assault, serve victims

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Rebekah Luttrell announces the start of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) of the Lowcountry during an April 23 press conference at the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office. COURTESY 14TH CIRCUIT SOLICITOR'S OFFICE

"One in six women and one in 33 men will be the victims of rape in their lifetime."

The Lowcountry's newest crime-fighting unit - the newly created Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) - was officially inaugurated at a ceremony April 23 in front of the 14th Circuit Victims Services Center in Okatie.

Deputy Shannon Parker of the Hampton County Sheriff's Office is chairman of the SART committee and opened her remarks with those statistics.

"Our mission is to collaboratively advocate for victims and survivors," Parker said, "and educate the community in order to increase awareness about resources, mechanisms of interventions and responses of sexual assaults."

Almost 20 regional law enforcement agencies, medical centers, military communities and community support groups have signed on to partner with SART. The support area encompasses Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties.

"The goal is to stop violence against victims of sexual assault," said Rebekah Luttrell, assistant solicitor of the 14th Circuit Court. "In 2018, the Special Victims Unit handled 170 offenses involving criminal sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and other cries against vulnerable populations. Our conviction rate for all jury trials is 85 percent, double the state's average of 40 percent in trials involving domestic violence and sexual assault. When all of our agencies take a collaborative approach to combat sexual violence, our community is more prepared to stop these crimes, help victims and hold offenders accountable."

One of the most essential people within the SART is newly hired Heather Dollar, the sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE), who is part of the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

"As a SANE coordinator, she is building a program from the ground up," said Luttrell. "She is specially trained to treat victims who are sexually assaulted. While the first priority is victim care and meeting their medical needs, SANEs also collect and preserve forensic evidence that can help us successfully prosecute sexual assault crimes."

Housed in the Victims Services Center are the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office; Hopeful Horizons, a children's advocacy, domestic violence and rape crisis center; the Child Abuse Prevention Association; Lowcountry Legal Volunteers; and Lowcountry Alliance for a Healthy Youth, a community organization that promotes positive youth development through positive choices.

"As prosecutors, we see the struggle and heavy burden that victims face as they deal with the aftermath of sexual violence," Luttrell said. "That burden is only made heavier by retelling their stories time and time again to different people at different places. That was the driving force behind the creation of the 14th Circuit Victims Services Center in this building."

In 2018, Hopeful Horizons helped nearly 100 victims of sexual assault, most of whom were assaulted by their intimate partner, dates, acquaintances or other family members, said Kristin Dubrowski, CEO of Hopeful Horizons.

"Our goal is to ensure victims' voices are heard," she added. "That they feel safe coming forward, and that they receive the support and resources they need to heal."

Katie Reid is the director of systems advocacy, prevention and training for the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA), also an organization within the new collaboration. SCCADVASA is the "statewide coalition of organizations providing intervention services to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and Primary Prevention programs to students and communities across the state," according to a statement on its website.

"Our vision is to see a South Carolina free of domestic violence and sexual assault," said Reid. "We don't want to see any more victimization."

The 14th Circuit Victims Services Center is at 108 Traders Cross in Okatie. For more information, call 843-790-6220.

"When all of our agencies take a collaborative approach to combat sexual violence, our community is more prepared to stop these crimes, help victims and hold offenders accountable," Luttrell said.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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