Group that works with sexual assault nurse examiners at MUSC Health gets new name, expands mission

February 22, 2021
Three young women hugging with their eyes closed.
Women between the ages of 18 and 34 are at especially high risk of sexual assault according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Photo illustration

A longtime Charleston organization known for helping people who survived sexual assault navigate the medical, emotional, legal and personal aftermath has a new name and an updated mission. People Against Rape is now Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S

“The acronym stands for sexual violence prevention, education, advocacy, knowledge and services,” said executive director Alex Russell. “The name change is to better reflect what services and programs we offer to the Tri-county area by focusing more on outreach, prevention, and resiliency building to aid in the healing journey for survivors.” 

She said Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S., which offers its services free of charge, wants to reach people who might not think of asking for help because they live outside of Charleston County or don’t think they fit the typical profile of a sexual assault survivor. The group has victim services advocates for not only Charleston but also Berkeley and Dorchester counties. 

“Not all sexual assault is rape. Someone might dismiss the idea of utilizing our services because they think, ‘Oh, well, I wasn't raped. Something else happened to me, so this group must not pertain to me,’” Russell said. 

“We want to send the message to people impacted by sexual violence that we are here for you. It doesn’t matter your socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, or if you’re in downtown Charleston or the rural Tri-county area. Our services are meant for you. We’re making sure we’re being as inclusive as possible to increase access to care.” 

The organization wants to send a message to law enforcement agencies, too. Tennelle Jones, a therapist and health educator at the Medical University of South Carolina’s National Crime Victims’ Research and Treatment Center, serves as chair of Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S.’ board of directors. “We hope to partner with law enforcement agencies to open the dialogue on trauma-informed interactions and investigation with someone who is reporting a sexual assault crime.” 

Victims aren’t always believed, Jones said. Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. wants to change that by giving investigators a better understanding of what they’re going through. “They’ve been traumatized, so they may not recall a lot of details. And there's still a lot of victim blaming like, ‘Well, you are doing this’ and ‘You were wearing that.’ The goal is with this new rebrand, we can step up and really educate the community in ways that historically People Against Rape probably has not been able to do because of the name.” 

The organization already has strong ties to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at MUSC Health and will continue to work closely with the SANE team. “Their services are invaluable to our patients,” said nurse Janette Ward. 

“While the coronavirus pandemic has altered how Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. operates, our program is looking forward to returning to normal and having advocates in the exam room.  Without having advocates in the room, the patient does not fully understand their value.” 

Advocates stay with victims through the medical exam. Jones said that’s important. “It can be very intimidating. You've already had a trauma, and you cannot necessarily hear the things that you need to hear. You're all emotional and distraught, right? Rightfully so. The advocates help communicate what the next steps need to be in order for them to move forward in their healing and recovery.” 

And that will continue to be the core of Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S.’ mission, Jones said – helping victims navigate an extremely stressful experience. The organization stays with them through the legal process, offering to go to police interviews and court with the victims, and connecting them with support groups and follow-up services. 

“We strive to empower survivors to take control of their own healing journey when they are ready,” Russell said. 

Jones agreed. “I think the most important part is this - the people who've experienced that need to know they don't have to be defined by that experience.”

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Helen Adams