JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – City leaders and victim advocates joined forces Wednesday morning at Jacksonville's City Hall to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward.
Mayor Lenny Curry designated April “ Sexual Assault Awareness Month” with a proclamation in the City Hall rotunda.
“Each April, we come together to raise awareness about sexual assault on the First Coast,” said Teresa Miles, executive director of the Women’s Center of Jacksonville. “After an increase in the number of reported cases following the #MeToo movement and a growth in the number of news stories about sexual assault, we hope to increase awareness and ultimately prevent more cases of sexual assault.”
Joining city leaders and advocates Wednesday morning was Trisha Meili, a sexual assault survivor who became nationally recognized as "the Central Park jogger." Meili was beaten and raped in New York City in 1989 and spent 12 days in a coma.
“I am a survivor, and I'm proud of that. I want to share with others how empowering that label can be,” Meili said. "I was not aware of the services around me. People were there, saying prayers for me and offering intentions and sending me things, and I know that that had the impact of letting me know that I wasn't alone and that I didn't do anything wrong."
Meili's attacker confessed to the rape, after he was sent to prison following another sexual assault and murder.
Nearly 30 years later, Meili said the journey of healing never stops. She said organizations like the Women's Center of Jacksonville give victims like her the support they need.
"We know that power was taken away from them. They didn't have the ability to say no. We want any survivor to know that when you come to us, we are here for you in whatever capacity you need,” WCJ Board President Sarah Mannion said.
SAAM was first recognized in April of 2001 but has roots dating back to the late 1980s as women and men participated in events to raise awareness about sexual assault, according to WCJ.
State lawmakers are also responding in the era of #MeToo with one representative, Adam Hattersley, of Hillsborough County, filing a bill dubbed the “Me Too No More Act.” The proposal would eliminate the statute of limitations for sex crimes and would require the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission to incorporate training techniques for interviewing traumatized victims.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is also stepping up to offer more support, adding four more victim's advocates to their team, which now has seven total. And they have plans to add more in the future.
"Embedding them into our investigative units, we feel like it not only helps the investigation, but it's an advocate there for the victim during the processes they have to go through in the criminal justice system,” Sheriff Mike Williams said.
One of those processes, which is often emotionally painful for victims, is undergoing a rape kit.
Under Florida law, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement now has four months to test rape kits.
A recent report published by the FDLE found that more than 7,000 backlogged rape kits had been tested by the end of last year. The report said 99.9 percent of the time the kits are now being tested within the four-month time frame.
WCJ has several other events planned on the First Coast for SAAM:
- April 24: Businesses can participate in Denim Day, allowing employees to wear jeans to support survivors of sexual violence. WCJ suggests asking employees to donate $2 per person to WCJ to wear denim to work on April 24. The register your company for Denim Day 2019, visit https://womenscenterofjax.org/denim-day.
- April 26: An art exhibit that allows survivors to share their journey toward healing through art.
- May 7, 5:30 p.m.: “Women, Words and Wisdom” event caps off SAAM at the Schultz Center. WCJ will present awards to 10 unsung Sheroes and Heroes, for the differences they are making in the lives of women in Northeast Florida. Following the awards, State Attorney Melissa Nelson will keynote the event. Tickets are $50 per person or $450 for a table of eight. All proceeds benefit the Women’s Center of Jacksonville. To register for Women, Words and Wisdom, visit https://womenscenterofjax.org/2019-women-words-wisdom.
“At the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, we are committed to helping all survivors of sexual assault,” said Miles. “From our 24-hour rape crisis hotline to free and reduced-cost counseling, our goal is to support survivors throughout the healing process.”
The Women's Center and Alpha Chi Omega women's fraternity will also observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month with the ninth annual "Take Back the Night” event at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University of North Florida's Osprey Plaza at the Delaney Student Union. An Awareness Fair will take place at 7 p.m. followed by a 7:30 p.m. cross-campus march and candlelight vigil to honor and remember those who have been impacted by interpersonal violence.
The Women's Center of Jacksonville is the only certified rape crisis center for Duval, Baker and Nassau counties, offering community education, counseling, referral assistance, rape prevention services and breast cancer education, support and advocacy at complimentary and affordable prices. The organization has given 352 forensic exams for victims in the last fiscal year.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, contact the Women’s Center of Jacksonville’s 24-hour rape crisis hotline at 904-721-7273.