Living in a rural community there are things that go unspoken and many of those things are difficulties that need to be brought into the light.
One of those difficulties is talking about sexual violence.
“Getting people to really talk about sexual violence and really understand what that means and what that looks like,” said Kari Peterson, explaining barriers she faces in her position.
Peterson is a victim advocate with the Gulf Coast Sexual Assault Program, which is part of the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, and handles sexual crimes committed against adults.
Multiple times a week, or sometimes even multiple times a day, victim advocates from the program are called out to hospitals in the six-county region the program covers including Bay, Gulf, Jackson, Calhoun, Washington, and Holmes to speak to a victim that has suffered.
Often times the victims of horrible crimes are alone and unaware of the proper steps to take.
“I think I could probably count on one hand how many of my clients have actually come with someone that could even get them home,” said Peterson, who has been with the program for two years.
When called, Peterson or another victim’s advocate show up to a hospital or a home with a care bag and more importantly the knowledge on how to best handle a very sensitive situation.
Peterson’s work doesn’t only stop at the initial assault; the advocate will guide a client throughout the legal process, and will even work past a judicial conclusion.
“It may not be that they are a victim in the last couple months,” Peterson said. “Maybe their assault happened 10 years ago. We have the availability to run the support groups for them.”
Advocates also work hand-and-hand with local hospitals, health organizations, and law enforcement agencies to provide training on the most up to date techniques and laws regarding sexual crimes.
According to Peterson, victims have time to take legal steps if they need to, which goes against the common misconception that a sexual crime involving adult must be reported to law enforcement right away.
The Sexual Assault Program has a qualified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner on staff, who is able to collect evidence which is anonymously held by the jurisdictional law enforcement office for a year.
“If they (victims) are not mentally ready in the first couple months,” Peterson said. “But in six months they get some really good therapy and decide they’re ready to go after the person to get justice, and then they (law enforcement) will pull that kit and link it up with our identifying client i.d.”
When prosecution begins, a victim advocate will take responsibility in keeping up with the legal side of things for a victim.
“It can take up to two years or longer for a case to actually go to trial,” Peterson said. “So we keep up with that so they don’t have to, and we check on them to make sure they have everything they need.”
Part of the program’s role is to provide a space for victims to seek out counseling and support.
Six months ago the program opened up an office located in Port St. Joe in the Town Centre Plaza building at 212 East Highway 98.
Initially, due to the distance from Panama City, it was difficult to maintain a daily presence at the Gulf County office, but Peterson said advocates will now be at the location daily.
Along with an advocate’s presence in Gulf County, the program will also host monthly support groups for survivors of sexual assault.
“Our hope is that we will have more and more people coming in,” Peterson said. “Then it will give those survivors the opportunity to make friends that maybe they didn’t realize shared an experience.”
Peterson believes that awareness of sexual violence and a proper response to it is a community prerogative.
She has been impressed by the seriousness with which local law enforcement agencies and other community organizations have tackled the issue.
Peterson said that she has already provided training to all of the local law enforcement agencies and receives calls regularly on law changes and the best way to handle a sensitive situations.
She said she has also learned quite a bit in her two years on the job and that the experience has been rewarding.
“It can be sad some days,” Peterson said. “But the majority of the time it is very rewarding to get to walk through that very traumatic situation with somebody and give them hope and promise.”
The Gulf Coast Sexual Assault Program has a 24/7 hotline available with an advocate answering calls at 1-866-218-4738.
For information about the support group you can reach out to Sonya Lowe at 832-9869.