Jacksonville sexual assault victims can soon go to a new location for forensic exams and other resources. It’s called the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam — or “SAFE” center and Monday was its ribbon cutting.
In 2014 the Women’s Center of Jacksonville took over forensic evidence collection for sexual assault cases from the city. It’s been operating out of a tiny space near UF Health downtown. Women’s Center staff estimate the new location on Emerson Street is at least three times as large.
Standing outside the renovated building, Rape Recovery Team Programs Director Robin Graber remembers a time when his team had six sexual assault exams in a day.
“We just had to have survivors waiting because we just didn’t have the space to put them,” Graber said.
He said the new space will make a huge difference in the experience survivors will have after a traumatic assault. The new building has two exam rooms, which are larger than the current single exam room and that’s because these new rooms have showers inside them.
“They currently have to leave the exam room and walk across a work area,” said Recovery Team Advocacy Director Sarah Wiese. “It’s not conducive to their privacy.”
Women’s Center Board President Lise Everly said everything in the facility is intentional, built with a “trauma lens.” Even the shower curtain. It’s opaque, except for the top third, which is clear.
“The purpose of that is so the survivor feels like they have control of the room, that they know who's there or who’s not there,” Everly said.
In addition, there are multiple waiting rooms with plush couches, art being curated by Jacksonville University, and there are plans for an outside healing garden complete with a commissioned Art Republic mural. The new space is big enough for survivors to bring in their loved ones for support.
The facility also has a secure, climate-controlled storage space for evidence and rooms for detectives to conduct interviews.
But Everly points out another room, which just looks like an office boardroom. She said it’s where the Women’s Center plans to bring in organizations to talk to them about sexual violence.
“The more people that can talk about this, the more comfortable survivors are going to feel with coming forward,” she said.
That’s been apparent since the Me Too movement caught on last fall. Everly said calls to her organization’s sexual assault hotline have gone up 53 percent and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Sharon Scott said she’s noticed the same spike.
“We have seen an increase in reporting. I can’t give you the actual numbers, but absolutely, ‘Me Too’ has kicked it up,” she said.
Scott is the commander for the special assault unit, dealing with abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. A warm environment, which the new center provides, matters because in many cases the survivor's bodies are the evidence, she said.
“Really everything has been thought about,” Scott said.
The purchase and rehab of the building cost just over a million dollars, with a fundraising goal of three million for a reserve fund and endowment. The center has raised about half of that.
“We had to make a leap of faith to buy the building before we had the donations to support it,” Everly said.
Philanthropists Wayne Weaver and Delores Barr Weaver donated $1 million to the cause. Half of their dollars went toward the reserve and renovation, while $500,000 is going into the endowment with a challenge to the community to match it.
“There is no one — our sisters, our daughters, our mothers — that should be raped,” Barr Weaver said. “For this community not to take care of those who have to go through such an ordeal is just not acceptable.”
The new location is expected to start seeing survivors next month.
Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.