FRANKFORT — It’s Erica Brown Myers’ job to help those who have been victimized by sexual abuse. But helping others can take a toll on the helper as well as the victim.
Myers, 35, of Greenup County, is director of Clinical Services at the Safe Harbor domestic abuse shelter in Ashland. She works directly with victims and she works with young counselors, often telling them “to take care of themselves while they take care of the victim.”
She recalls the time she nearly broke down emotionally while listening to a little girl describe how “she vividly remembers the first time she was victimized by her step-father because it was her birthday.”
While being assaulted, the little girl heard her mother knocking at the door and knew she was bringing a birthday cake.
“She told me she just thought about the cake,” Myers said. “But I had such good parents and, when I heard that story, it was just very hard to control my emotions.”
That’s why it’s so important for Myers to work with young clinicians, telling them how to talk to victims so the victim won’t be “re-victimized and re-traumatized;” while not allowing themselves to be traumatized.
Myers isn’t alone in seeing the devastating effects on victims who are often powerless to prevent the abuse and frequently fearful of reporting it.
Deputy Ruford Abner, 53, is the Domestic Violence Officer in Rowan County. He sees every domestic violence order in the county; he investigates sexual assault cases; he’s the one who makes sure the frightened victims get to the hospital or get counseling.
Sadly, many victims blame themselves.
“A lot of victims feel like they ‘deserved’ what happened to them,” Abner explained. “It’s not their fault.”
And some are ashamed, fearful of retribution and reluctant to report the crime or identify their abuser.
“I try to educate them as to why they need to do it, to get care and to get protection,” Abner said. Sexual assault occurs more frequently than many realize. Abner said he typically sees as many as 130 protective orders in a year and investigates 20 to 30 cases.
Gov. Steve Beshear declared March Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Kentucky, and the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KSAP) held a ceremony Thursday in the state Capitol Rotunda to honor Myers, Abner and three others for their work with sexual assault victims.
Abner was awarded a regional SAAMy Award while Myers was presented with the 2014 Fonetta A. Elam Excellence in Clinical Supervision Award along with co-winner Dr. Brenda Hughes, the Director of Trauma Services at Kentucky River Community Care.
MaryLee Underwood was the state SAAMy awardee for her work as a volunteer for the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center where she began her work in the field as a crisis line volunteer while in college. Now an attorney, Underwood continues to volunteer as a crisis intervention worker and served as a North Carolina legislative and policy consultant for the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Awareness.
Dr. Ann Coker holds the Verizon Wireless Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women and is a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the College of Medicine. Coker was recognized with the 2014 National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s Visionary Voice Award.
The Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center was awarded the 2014 Innovative Program Award.
Myers was nominated for the award by Lisa Phelps, director of the Rape Crisis Service at Pathways, the comprehensive care center in Ashland. Myers was her professor in college and Phelps also did her undergraduate internship with Myers.
“Even to this day she is a mentor to me,” Phelps said. “She taught me how to work with the victims, but do it for the victims and to work with a team.”
Myers said sexual violence has many victims and some don’t fit the usual image. Safe Harbor averages between 30 and 60 sheltered clients at any time – many of them children and some of them men.
Men, Myers said, “typically suffer a different kind of abuse. It’s usually verbal or psychological, things like using their children to gain power over the men. But some men do suffer sexual and physical violence on occasion.”
Like Abner, Myers said it’s important for the victims to understand. Many were victimized as children and some are children of parents who were also victimized.
“At Safe Harbor, our purpose is to break the cycle of violence.” Myers said.