Victims of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and similar crimes within the five local counties will no longer have to travel to several places to tell the same traumatic story, to have physical exams, or to receive civil legal assistance.
The 14th Circuit Victims Services Center at the solicitor's headquarters in Okatie officially opened Oct. 10. The center will provide support through partnerships with area hospitals and Hopeful Horizons, the Child Abuse Prevention Association of Beaufort, Lowcountry Legal Volunteers, Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth, and Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA).
The VSC is the newest asset in the 14th Circuit Court's resources and was a long-time goal of Solicitor Duffie Stone. As a young prosecutor, Stone witnessed a victim repeat the story of her assault seven times to people in different locations who were "all meaning very well and all of them needing to get that information, but it was very difficult on that victim," said Stone at the center's opening ceremony.
"Think about it from this perspective: She hadn't been to court yet; she hadn't seen a single counsel," he added. "This was all that was just necessary to start the process."
It was even more difficult for child victims of abuse. In order to receive a physical exam, children had to travel to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston in addition to having multiple interviews.
Now, all of that can take place in one location, minimizing lengthy travel, appointments spread out over days or weeks, and the trauma of reliving the experience with every interview.
One section of the new center is specifically for children, with toys, stuffed animals, blankets, a fish tank, comfortable seats and a safe, welcoming environment. This is where the 14th Circuit experts will conduct forensic interviews and physical exams.
A forensic interview is a structured conversation designed to get information about something the child has seen or experienced.
In the small interview room are chairs and a table, anatomically correct dolls and drawing paper. As others in an adjacent room listen and watch, youngsters speak with a certified interviewer about what happened to them.
Michelle Fraser, head of the Solicitor's Office victim advocates, is one of those interviewers and said the children are shown the room first.
"We tell the child that there are cameras in the ceiling, microphones in the wall, my friends are in another room, and they're listening to what we're saying so that I get it right and I don't forget any questions," Fraser said.
In addition to the small room next door, there is a larger room that can hold more people.
"That's for the whole team to be able to set up and watch [the interview], with a victim advocate, the nurse, the prosecutor, an investigator, our investigator, a social worker, and anyone else we think needs to be part of an emergency interview," Fraser said.
When the interview is over, the child is meets Heather Dollar in the exam room. A sexual abuse nurse examiner (SANE), Dollar is specially trained to treat victims who are sexually assaulted. Her job is to collect and preserve forensic evidence that can be used to prosecute sexual assault crimes.
"My role is to do their actual physical exam," Dollar said. "I've listened to their forensic interview. I want to look on their body where they said they've been touched, where they said they've been hurt, what's happened to them, for injuries. To photograph it, to measure it, to see if there's a bruise. And then to collect evidence."
On a table next to the examination chair - on which there sits a cuddly stuffed puppy ready to comfort a youngster - was a sexual assault evidence kit.
Dollar will show a child the items, telling the child she uses cotton swabs to touch different things on their body.
"Our goal is to collect things from them that help in the legal process. By going through training and knowing how to listen to a child's story, you know where to look," Dollar said. The kits are then sent to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division for processing.
"As I'm talking to them, I also tell them that whatever happened to them is not their fault. One of the main goals of our exam is to let them know their body is OK," said Dollar. "Even if I find something, I say, 'Hey, there is something here, but it's going to heal and you're going to be fine.' Because children need to hear that. Otherwise they think they're going to grow up and be different from everybody else."
Among the agencies who work to protect and support is BACA. Wearing black and sporting nametags that read Mr. Clean, Salami and Dude, members were on hand for the center's opening.
Dude explained that they "fill the gap between law enforcement and all of these agencies. We can make them feel safe and give them their childhood back. We do whatever it takes to remove their fear."
That includes taking them shopping, to the grocery store and even taking little girls to get their nails done. Some members have even had their toes painted in the process, Dude said.
"And when they're called into court to testify, the whole chapter goes in with the child, and quite often," Dude said, "we are the only ones on their side of the courtroom. It splits families. We always believe the child."
The 14th Circuit Court covers residents of Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties. The Victims Services Center is at 108 Traders Cross, Okatie.
For more information, call 843-790-6220.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.