SANTA CLARA — Described as a panel of “local wonder women,” six women from different organizations in Southern Utah teamed up to share how their organizations help victims of crime.
The panel was in conjunction with the Washington County Republican Women’s Luncheon, which took place Thursday at the Santa Clara Town Hall. Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap introduced and moderated the panel. He described the women and the services they provide remarkable.
“When we think about the criminal justice system, we often think about court and sometimes the police … but the reality is much more than that,” Belnap said, adding that the gears of justice involve a lot of people.
Those people include Camden Caifa, clinical coordinator for Southwest SANE; Cindy Flowers, director of the St. George Dispatch Center; Sgt. Choli Ence, of the St. George Police Department; Madonna Melton, director of operations and shelter services for the Dove Center; Kristy Pike, director of the Washington County Children’s Justice Center; and Sharmane Gull, Court Support Services Director.
As director of the St. George 911 Communication Center, Flowers oversees 42 employees. She’s been the director since 2012.
While answering a question from the audience regarding resources for 911 dispatchers, she said she considers her employees the real first responders because they hear the initial cry for help when a crime or incident has happened.
“Once the help gets on scene, we hang up, and sometimes we don’t get real closure,” she said. “So you have to be able to move on without that closure.”
The center answers approximately 210,000 calls a year, and for the calls that are difficult, Flowers makes sure her staff has resources.
Besides a Employee Assistance Program, which assists employees with personal problems that may be affecting their work performance, Flowers said there is a support group within the center, as well as a quiet room – where employees can go to take a breather if they just received a bad call.
Debriefings are also held for high-incident calls, such as a deaths.
“Each agency will hold a debriefing, and they include whoever was involved or on scene at the time,” she said.
As director of the WCCJC, Pike’s job is to make criminal justice as least traumatic as possible for children, Belnap said. The center is the place children can visit to be interviewed or receive physical or mental exams if they’ve been sexually abused.
Pike addressed the magnitude of how often sexual assault is happening to children. She said the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assault before the age of 18.
“I know that sounds horrific,” she said, “and I know that we want to say it’s not that way in St. George and Washington County, but it is.”
Pike also discussed education surrounding the subject and what community members can do a better job at.
“We need to do a better job of educating our kids about how to be safe, and we need to do a much better job about teaching our kids how not to be perpetrators,” she said.
As far as the center goes, mental health has become more of a key focus. The center recently received a $144,000 grant to help get free mental health counseling. It also applied for a $1.6 million grant to help with mental health counseling.
“We’re getting much more involved in helping kiddos in their recovery. Rather than rescuing kids, we’re looking to help them recover their lives and become healthy in their relationships going forward.”
Caifa has been a registered nurse and program director of Southwest SANE, or sexual assault nurse examiner, since 2007. She manages a team of nurses specifically trained how to compassionately, carefully and accurately interact with victims of sexual assault, as well as collect evidence in sexual assault kits.
“They’re one of the very first people to show understanding and compassion to a victim,” Belnap said. “And sometimes they’re the only ones because sometimes victims do not want to engage with the system.”
One victim’s response to being sexually assault or raped is completely different than the next victim’s, Caifa said.
Having an expectation of a victim being distraught or unable to breath after being raped is just another “rape myth,” she said, adding that only a small percentage of those type of responses happen when a victim comes in after experiencing a rape.
“We really want to dispel those myths to say however they respond, it’s their response to have and our response to that should be, ‘I believe you and I’m here for you,'” she said.
After a victim experiences sexual assault or rape, some of the very first questions he or she is asked are “Why didn’t you fight back?” and “Why didn’t you run?” Caifa said basic brain functions, such as your flight or fight response, are turned off in traumatic situations.
“What we’re learning with the neurobiology of trauma is they were not capable of doing that,” she said, referring to rape victims. “Their brain turned off their ability to fight or run.”
That is why victims don’t often report, she said, because they feel shameful for not fighting back.
As the director of operations and shelter services for the Dove Center, Melton for years has seen firsthand the effects of domestic violence.
For someone in need of shelter, their starting point is usually the center’s 24-hour hotline: 435-628-0458. Melton is particularly proud of the Dove Center’s safe house because it now shelters both abused women and men, whereas before the center would put abused men in hotels or other arrangements.
Once victims of domestic violence have access to the shelter, they also have access to an array of resources, such as free counseling and support groups. Depending on a victim’s level of safety and what they would like to do, they’re allowed to stay at the shelter for up to 45 days, as long as they don’t have any major infractions, such as drug use.
“Our safe house is a place of peace and healing, so we want to make sure that it’s that kind of atmosphere,” Melton said.
Due to the Dove Center merging with the Erin Kimball Memorial Foundation in 2017, it’s able to provide transitional housing for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault when it’s safe for them to move on from the safe house.
Grants that the center receives from the Office of Victims of Crime also allow it to help victims pay their rent when they can get permanent housing, as well as help them go back to school if they choose to do so.
As a sergeant with the St. George Police Department, Ence investigates crimes involving vice, gangs, human trafficking and sex offenses. She’s also a forensic digital examiner – an expert in computers, phones and other devices, a fraud examiner, a child forensic interviewer and an adjunct professor at Dixie State University.
She’s also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
At the luncheon, she discussed the importance of reporting crime.
“If a victim has been victimized by a perpetrator, the first step is to report it to law enforcement, even if they choose not to do anything else,” she said.
By reporting incidents to law enforcement, it starts the ball rolling for other agencies to get involved, such as the Dove Center or the children’s justice center.
“Everybody else can kind of come in, and we can refer them to the agencies that can get them the help that they need,” she said.
As the manager of Court Support Services in Washington County, Gull is trying to break the cycle of repeat offenders.
“Sharmane has built in the past 18 months a program which focuses on specific individualized treatment on offenders to try and help them out of the cycle of repeatedly offending,” Belnap said while introducing Gull.
The goal of the program, which Gull built from scratch, is to produce public safety and help people find productive lives. In the 18 months of its existence, the program has had 800 participants.
According to the National Institute of Justice, the U.S. has a nearly 68 percent recidivism rate within three years of release — the tendency of a criminal to reoffend. Among the offenders Gull has helped, there is a 25 percent recidivism rate.
“When an offender is ready to be released, we do have a transition plan,” she said.
An issue she sees while working with offenders is a housing crisis because offenders have no income when they’re released and because they have a criminal record, they have a barrier when applying for housing.
Most importantly, Gull hopes people remember that offenders were once children, too, and that their criminal tendencies span from mental health or substance abuse issues.