TUSCALOOSA GETS A ‘SAFE’ PLACE FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVORS
The first thing one sees when visiting the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center website is a startling statistic: “Every 98 seconds, someone across the country experiences sexual assault. Those who call West Alabama home are no exception.” With those two sentences, we are reminded of an issue that society would rather forget, an issue that goes unreported 63% of the time according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. That statistic jumps to more than 90% when focused just on sexual assaults that occur on college campuses. While this number is significant, not many people are aware of it and therefore don’t know what to do when they or someone they know is affected by sexual assault.
Here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a group of people is working to change that. On Nov. 1, 2018, the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center opened its doors. According to its website, the SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examination) Center is a “private facility that provides a compassionate, patient-centered environment for sexual assault forensic examinations.” Under the direction of executive director, Pam Jones, it is clear that the care, effort, time and resources that go into making the SAFE Center what it is proves unparalleled.
Jones is the Executive Director of the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center. It is her job to oversee the overall management of the Center, including duties like community outreach, public speaking, and donor meetings. Program director, Brenda Maddox and all other employees are nurses by trade as well as SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) trained or SANE certified. They are the first people a patient will meet when arriving at the SAFE Center. Jones described them as very compassionate and trained to assist medical, emotional and forensic needs.
“Our goal is to restore power to the patient the minute they come here and that starts with the nurses,” said Jones.
This theme of returning power to the patient and making sure they feel safe and comfortable is a recurring one. Once arriving at the Center, there are several options available to the patient depending on their individual needs. The staff always begin with medical care a patient requires. Patients then have the option to have a forensic exam performed. The patient can decide to seek justice immediately (known as full disclosure) or have their kit filed under Jane/John Doe and seek justice when they feel ready (known as anonymous disclosure) as there is no statute of limitations on rape in the state of Alabama. The Center then gives the patient the chance to shower and provides them with new, clean clothes that they can change into. The SAFE Center also works with two outside agencies: The Women and Gender Resource Office (for University of Alabama and Shelton State students) and Turning Point. These agencies provide counseling, medical advocacy and court advocacy.
All of the services provided by the SAFE Center are completely free and insurance is never billed. Jones believes that any patient that is still under her/his parent’s insurance should have the opportunity to tell their parents when they are ready rather than when their parents receive a bill for a SAFE Center forensic exam in the mail.
To those contemplating coming to the SAFE Center but are nervous or scared or embarrassed, Jones said, “What has happened to you was undeserved, you did not need it, and it doesn’t have to define you. Come into the SAFE Center and we will help you, we will love on you, we’ll give you that medical care, we’ll make sure your body is okay, we will offer you the services that you need to help you get through this.”
This center has been in the works for around 10 to 12 years, but it did not take off until 2017 when Amanda Fowler, the current board chair, pulled together a board of directors to help ignite the creation of the Center in Tuscaloosa. Within five hours of opening the center, the first patient walked through the door. Since then 87 patients have walked through the door, both male and female, ranging in age from 14 to over 50.
These statistics alone serve to show just how important this center is to the community and to those in need of the services they offer. Jones has high hopes for continued growth and further awareness of the SAFE Center and sexual assault in general. “The biggest disgrace would be that we have this great center here to help people and people just don’t know about us,” said Jones.
That’s one of the reasons that University of Alabama students Baylee Clark and Allison Bailey work to make sure the SAFE Center doesn’t go unnoticed. Clark ran for Homecoming Queen in 2018 with the SAFE Center as her platform. This gave her the ability to talk to thousands of students about something she and many others cared about from its very inception.
“If we could talk to 100 people and each of them has a roommate or a best friend, statistically some of those people will need this service, and even if it’s somebody who heard from a friend of a friend because I told somebody, then we’ve done our job,” said Clark.
As a member of the First Year Council, Bailey worked to create a SAFE Center committee that will serve as a liaison between the university community and the SAFE Center. She hopes to bring awareness to the cause and raise funds to continue the important services that the SAFE Center provides.
If you or someone you know has suffered from sexual assault, the SAFE Center is always there for anyone who needs them. They are open 24/7, every day of the year, and are only a phone call or short drive away.
“It’s one of those things you hope you never need to use but if you do need it, thank God it’s here,” said Jones.
1601 University Boulevard East, Suite 150
Tuscaloosa, AL 35404