Mobile unit serving sexual victims in area

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Sexual assault is traumatic. Afterward, the victim could have all kinds of questions running through their heads: Am I OK? Why did this happen to me? What should I do? Where can I turn? Where can I go for help?

The Crisis Center Rape Response program is one resource that recently gets even better for people in Walker County. 

In the past, if someone experienced sexual assault in Walker County, there is a good chance she (or he) might end up at the Crisis Center in Birmingham, where counselors and medical personnel would help them navigate through this complex situation. There the victim would receive an acute medical exam and counseling services to help deal with the aftermath of the assault. 

Fortunately for victims, last summer the crisis center added a mobile unit so response teams could provide service not only to Jefferson County, but also St. Clair, Blount, and Walker counties. 

The mission of the mobile unit is to serve survivors of sexual assault.

Members of the mobile unit response team are Kristin Rezak, who is the sexual assault examiner nurse; Rebecca Henderson, who is the counselor and legal advocate; and Quintin Marable is the driver and provides security services. 

The mobile unit has equipment that enables the team to provide acute exams. During this process, the nurse checks the victim for injuries, and also collects evidence that can be used in court, according to Henderson.

“I provide counseling services for survivors and secondary survivors,” she said, adding the mobile unit also provides follow-up care.

Some victims of sexual violence have situations that arise weeks after the initial exam. This could include HIV testing, pregnancy testing, and the nurse can do general physical exams, according to Rhiannon Reese, who works at the Crisis Center.

Reese went on to explain that STI tests are costly and take time to get the results. Instead, the mobile unit screens the patient, and if they exhibit any symptoms of infections, the nurse can administer antibiotics to treat these conditions. 

Secondary survivors may also need counseling because they’re providing support for the survivor, and they may also have a lot of questions, according to Henderson. “All of our services are free,” she said.

In the past, the Crisis Center referred victims to the Department of Public Health or the victim’s primary care provider for follow-up treatment.

“Now, we are able to provide that medical follow-up for free,” Henderson said.

When the patient calls, the team sets up an appointment and tells the client the exact location of the mobile unit. “We don’t publicize that (the location of the mobile unit) for their safety and confidentiality,” Henderson said. The mobile unit has no markings so that it remains relatively anonymous.

Even if the victim was assaulted years ago, they could continue to receive free checkups and counseling, according to Henderson. 

“We know a lot of people don’t immediately disclose for a lot of different reasons, and we don’t want that to be a barrier, we don’t want to have to drive into Birmingham to be a barrier, and we don’t want cost to be a barrier,” she said. “We’re trying to make it easy for them.”

The mobile unit doesn’t make house calls, but they will go to an area close to where the victim lives.

A client doesn’t have to wait in a waiting room,  but simply show up at the appointed time and place, Henderson said.

The Crisis Center sees just over 300 people a year at the facility in Birmingham. The majority of people come from Jefferson County because it is the most populated.

When the Crisis Center officials dug deeper into the number of crimes in Alabama and what was reported, it didn’t match up with what they saw here.

They realized that sexual assaults were happening in outlying areas, and those people were not coming to the Birmingham Crisis Center. They began looking at barriers. They speculated that some victims didn’t have transportation, or simply didn’t feel comfortable coming to the Crisis Center.

They decided that a mobile unit would overcome these barriers. “This is the best way that we could do it,” Reese said.

The Crisis Center sets the age for service at 14 years and older because they can give medical consent.

The evidence-collection part of this program is dependent upon the victim getting checked within 72 hours of the assault. The goal is to work with the legal system to make the evidence collection process seamless for them and the survivors. 

The kinds of evidence collected after an assault are DNA and other physical evidence, as well as a narrative from the victim, Reese said. This becomes part of the police report. All the evidence is then handed off to the crime lab, which processes and stores the evidence.

The Rape Response Unit formed in 1975, and served outlying counties but victims had to come to the Crisis Center in Birmingham. They didn’t get the mobile unit and or start coming into Walker County until July 2019. Before then, victims had to go to the Crisis Center in Birmingham to receive services.

The victims don’t have to file a police report to receive services from the Crisis Center, but if they do choose to file, Henderson said she does legal advocacy, which could include going with the victim when they present the report or when they go to court. 

Anyone can receive services. “We know that men are also assaulted, too,” Reese said.

The mobile unit operates during normal business hours Monday through Friday.

The mobile unit can arrange to come to a location convenient for the victim. This includes Jefferson, Blount, St. Clair, and Walker counties.

The mobile cell phone number is 205-396-8376. If the need is immediate, one may call the Crisis Center, which is staffed 24/7, at 205-323-7273.