‘Start by believing’: Advocates stress community support during Sexual Assault Awareness Month

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — This month marks the 20th year April has been recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Organizations in the Tri-Cities say there is a lot of work to be done to help victims.

For many victims, the Branch House Family Justice Center in Blountville is a place of healing.

“I think the general feeling when a client leaves here is empowerment and support,” said director Brittany Fleenor.

The Branch House was created to give victims of crimes like sexual assault one place to go to get every service they need.

“You end up having to tell your story to multiple agencies, multiple people, you have to go from place to place and that can be traumatizing. Our goal is to remove any barriers between a victim and safety,” said Fleenor.

In March of 2020, the Branch House unveiled a brand new addition to help victims.

“In this room we are able to do forensic medical exams for anybody that has been the victim of intimate partner violence or sexual assault,” said Dawn Smith, sexual assault exam nurse.

It’s a unique sexual assault exam room that only a few family justice centers have in the country. It allows victims to go somewhere more comfortable and private than the ER.

“Almost anything they can do at the hospital, lab wise and everything like that we can do here as well,” said Smith.

Since 2018 the Branch House has helped over 800 clients. Since the opening of the sexual assault exam room, they have completed 19 sexual assault exams.

Emily-Anne Buck is a sexual assault survivor. She went to ETSU and spends her time now advocating to teenagers in Knoxville on awareness and warning signs.

“I don’t regret anything that I experienced because it made me who I am today. And I have a deep rooted faith that when there are really bad things going on, God can use it for good,” said Buck.

She says just starting this conversation can help the next victim.

“The more we talk about this, the more we bring it to light the more there is healing for everybody involved,” said Buck.

Fleenor agrees it starts with the community rallying behind this cause.

“If you feel like nobody is going to hear you or you are going to be blamed or there is a huge stigma in your community around sexual assault, that makes it very difficult to come forward and report what has happened,” said Fleenor.

So, what do you do if someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted? These advocates say it starts with one thing.

“You listen. The most important thing you can do is come with a non-judgmental mind, tell them you are so proud of them, they have courage and bravery, and you believe them,” said Buck.

“The very first thing you should do is say I believe you. And the next thing you should say is I am sorry that happened to you and it is not your fault,” said Fleenor.

If you are someone who has been sexually assaulted, they encourage you to seek help. The Branch House is a great place to start or any family justice center in your area.

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