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A safe place for rape survivors to go

Inside the Women's Center of Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Women's Center of Jacksonville is now eligible to perform a sexual assault forensic exam, also known as the Safe Program. It's a full-body exam for victims 18 and older, during which doctors can collect DNA and document injuries.  The center allowed News4Jax inside to see what a victim of sexual assault may experience when being cared for at the center.

It may all start with a phone call to the 24-hour Rape Crisis Hotline, which is (904) 721-RAPE (7273). Then, an advocate and nurse will help you safely get to the center and walk you through the process.

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With privacy, patience, and kindness, Advocate Katy Carignan is often the first person a victim will see after a sexual assault and she says she'll do whatever it takes to make a survivor as comfortable as possible.

"When someone is victimized, somebody has taken their decision-capability away from them, they've taken away their ability to say yes or no to something very important so what we're trying to do is let them make the decisions about what goes forward, so everything from do you want to come in? Do you want to just speak on the phone? Do you want to get an exam done? All of these are the survivor's decision," she said.

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Carignan connects survivors with nurses like Megan Arzt.

"A lot of people feel the situation that they were in was their fault and it isn't their fault," said Arzt.

Arzt collects information about medical history, injuries, and details of the assault, and if survivors give consent, she will perform a free forensic exam.

"This is what a typical forensic assault kit looks like," Arzt showed us. "And we have all of these different envelopes because each swab that we take gets labeled so that the lab can differentiate the areas of the body that we're swabbing."

She swabs survivors to identify their own DNA, as well as areas of the body affected by the assault for possible evidence.  Arzt says she reminds survivors they can stop at any point during the exam.

The forensic portion takes about 10 minutes, is painless and is similar to a standard gynecology exam.

Because of a new Florida law, survivors do not have to report the rape to police, so the evidence is either sent off for state processing  or held for up to two years and discarded. What's important is to gather the evidence as soon as possible - within 120 hours of the assault - and before a shower, and with the clothes worn during the attack.

After the exam, the center offers victims a shower, change of clothes, transportation and a safe place to go. Then advocates continue checking on victims as the healing process begins.

The Women's Center of Jacksonville offers services to women and men in Duval, Baker and Nassau Counties,  no matter their sexual orientation, but no one is turned away, no matter where they are from or how much time has passed since the attack.

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Last year 1,500 people called the Jacksonville hotline. And in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reports 3.1 million Florida women were raped at some point in their lives. But, the statistics are misleading because only a fraction of rape victims come forward. Rape Recovery Team Director Morgan Moeller is hoping the Women's Center of Jacksonville can help change that.

"Our goal is to make sure that all survivors know that services are available to them that there's somebody waiting to talk to them on our 24-hour hotline and we're happy to meet with them in person as well," Moeller said. "So, whenever you're ready, whether that's tomorrow or two weeks from now or two months from now or two years from now, we're here for you and we're ready to listen."

The Women's Center of Jacksonville offers a wide variety of free services, including counseling and education.  Learn more here.