CSNA: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Crisis Services of North Alabama (CSNA), a 501(c)3 non-profit, has been serving Jackson County’s most vulnerable with two sides: the sexual assault side, run by Teresia Smith, Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and the domestic violence side, run by Christina Hays, Domestic Violence Services Coordinator/Special Assessment Intervention Liaison (S.A.I.L.) Specialist and Rebecca Hieronymi, Domestic Violence Victim Services Coordinator.Currently, the sexual assault side is operating under a 100% Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, which guides the services the CSNA can provide, meaning if someone comes in needing marriage counseling or mental health therapy, because having a therapist is off-grant, the CSNA will not be able to provide those services; however, what they can provide is a referral and direct contact information to the people who can provide those services.

“We also operate with the Jackson County Coalition Against Domestic Violence (JCCADV) for funding,” stated Smith. “If someone needs a door replaced where someone has busted in their door, they will help do that. They also help with partial deposits.”

With the JCCADV operating completely separate from Crisis Services, they still maintain the focus of helping Crisis Services clients from Jackson County in any way they can.

“The United Givers Fund also provides a lot of funding for us, too,” stated Hays. “They do fundraising, and they help keep us in Jackson County. We are one of 14 organizations that receive fundraising from them.”

The domestic violence side operates under a 100% VOCA grant, an 80% VOCA and 20% S.A.I.L. After the state DHR came to the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 years ago, they brought to light the number of children in a home with domestic violence. They presented their case on the basis that the non-offending parent is going to need more help to keep their home and family intact.

“We can provide a resource. Maybe they can stay at a shelter, or maybe they can stay with a relative for a little while. We can pay the deposits for them to get their own place away from the offending parent, and that has kept hundreds of children in Jackson County out of the foster care system,” Hays stated.

Smith and Hays recently sat down with The Clarion and discussed their daily routines, the issues they face each day and the people they are able to see, protect, encourage and advocate for.
For such a sparsely populated area, Jackson County sees quite a large volume of sexual abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.

“There is a lot here. More than people realize,” stated Hays. “Domestic violence really encompasses all of it because a lot of our clients also have sexual assault. If you’re in that domestic abuse relationship, a lot of times you’re coerced or forced against your will. I don’t know how many people I’ve filled out Protection From abuse Orders with, and they will put everything down, but they will not want to put sexual abuse because they’re afraid it looks bad on them, and they’re still protecting that person.”

“It is a lot, and it’s all types, all ages,” confirmed Smith. “People think Scottsboro and Jackson County are just sleepy little towns and none of that happens here. But a lot of it happens here. They just don’t realize how bad it is because nobody talks about it. That’s how it was when I was growing up, and that’s still how it is today. I can’t tell you how many times someone elderly has come up to me and told me what happened to them when they were a kid. Back when it happened to them, you didn’t talk about it, and nothing was done. Multiple people have said to me that when they went to someone they were told to keep it in the family and to keep it quiet. There are a lot of people living with that pain.”

For the people who come into the CSNA and make their way to Smith’s office, they are met with compassion and resources.

“One of our biggest battles is keeping it relevant, keeping the conversation going and asking the right questions because there’s still so much victim blaming,” stated Hays. “There’s a huge problem in our small area because we haven’t reached out, and we haven’t talked about these things. Everybody’s embarrassed, or they don’t want to deal with it.”

Smith also addressed the CSNA’s problem with getting people to come to support groups. She stated most feel intimidated because of how small this community is. Even though participants sign a confidentiality agreement, there is still fear of being judged or talked about. Hays stated most don’t feel like sharing their story, so the CSNA tries to shift focus to a topic or activity to give them a sense of community.

“That’s where that stigma is, where we’re trying to break away. It’s not their shame to carry, and they have nothing to be embarrassed about,” stated Hays.

“I sit with them, and I listen to their story. Sometimes just being able to talk to someone can really help. After they talk, and we have it all laid out, we make a point to not tell them what to do. I tell them their options. I encourage them. It is not our place to tell them what to do. They’ve been controlled enough,” Smith stated. “It’s really important that they know it is not their fault. That they didn’t do anything wrong.”

“There are some people who truly get the help they need. They go to a therapist, and they get down to it. Maybe it was an adverse childhood, and it’s caused them to have these power issues. Until they decide that what they’re doing is wrong, they will never change. Abusers justify what they are going to do, and they choose to do it. Verbally, emotionally, physically, it is all decided and justified before. They can turn it on and off. There’s not one abuser I have ever met where someone hasn’t stood up and said, “They’re a great guy, and they would never do this,” or , “They’re a great woman, and they would never say that.” They know how to play when people are around versus when they’re behind closed doors. The national average is one in four women report, but I say report because there are probably two to three women out of four who aren’t reporting.”

Hays has had the opportunity, many times, to accompany victims to provide comfort during legal proceedings. Even if the victim knows Hays is standing outside the room, it gives them a sense of safety.

Jackson County District Attorney Jason Pierce stated, “Jackson County is fortunate to have the passionate advocates at the CSNA. They repeatedly demonstrate their commitment to those who have suffered abuse and are there to assist them both in court and outside of court. They strive to insure that every domestic violence victim knows that they don’t have to make that difficult and oft painful and confusing walk alone.”

Smith also stressed that it is not just male abusers they know about, because there are also men who are being abused by women in relationships. With cases of male abusers to female victims being so prevalent, it’s easy to not realize men can be abused, as well.

“The bulk of what I do is women coming for services. There are a lot of men who don’t come forward because they don’t recognize it as abuse, and there’s a stigma, and I am a female, and they have to come talk to a female about another female.”

Either way, they both emphasize the importance of recognizing abuse for abuse, regardless from which gender it is. Smith and Hays spoke about how abuse can be normalized in how it is inflicted, how it is accepted, and how it is ignored because the victim has adapted to the abuse, there is a feeling of shame or fear of retaliation or stigma, there is the worry of being shunned, financial instability, especially when children are involved. Another reason even more insidious is the love the victim feels for the abuser.

If you or anyone you know has been sexually assaulted or the victim of intimate partner violence please contact Crisis Services of North Alabama locally at 256-574-5826 or at our 24/7 HELPline at 256-716-1000. CSNA and Jackson County Coalition Against Domestic Violence will be sharing information regarding Sexual Assault Awareness Month regularly through the month of April. Please continue to look for articles and social media posts to help promote awareness.

by Martha Smith

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