HUNTSVILLE — As Scott County’s reinvigorated approach to combatting domestic violence moves forward, there’s a new player in the game: Scott Appalachian Industries.

The Huntsville-based non-profit has been a partnering organization with the new Scott County Family Justice Center from the beginning, even providing temporary office space to the fledgling justice center. But SAI announced last week that it is taking on a new role in the new approach by providing adult sexual assault services.

Through a new grant-funded program, SAI has hired two new employees: a victim advocate and a sexual assault response team coordinator. The program’s approach will be two-pronged: to provide support to victims of sexual assault, and to coordinate a community-wide response to sexual assault cases.

The new program is somewhat outside the realm of SAI’s traditional services but administrative director Kaprecia Babb said it fits the profile of what the organization hopes to accomplish.

“We want to help,” Babb said of SAI — which has traditionally offered programs for adults with disabilities. “We want to do what we’re supposed to do in this county — and that’s fill in the gaps. If there’s something that we can do, SAI wants to do it. And we want to do it good.”

Combatting sexual assault cases is one of those gaps that has previously existed. While the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands has long been in place to advocate for and support child victims of sexual assault, adults have largely gone about it alone. 

“For victims of sexual assault here in Scott County, if they’ve needed services, they’ve probably had to drive to Knoxville,” Babb said. “You make your appointment, you go to see your therapist, you’re in a vehicle by yourself. You get to therapy, you relive that traumatic experience, then you’re driving back another hour. How awful, us not providing services for that victim and the danger we put them in. We’re not serving our folks correctly, and that’s what got us interested. It’s something that was needed here.”

SAI’s first step was to bring aboard Sherri Stinson as the program coordinator. Stinson is an experienced counselor for sexual assault victims through private practice, and understood how real the need was in Scott County. In an 18-month period, she counseled 37 victims of sexual assault in Scott County. In less than a month since she teamed up with SAI, there have been three more sexual assault victims to add to the list. And those are only the ones who’ve reported what has happened to them. Stinson and Babb know there are others who have not come forward.

“The bad thing is we have (a sexual assault problem),” Stinson said. “The good thing is we have services and people are reaching out.”

SAI’s program is directly linked to the new family justice center, which officially opened on June 29. The two issues — domestic violence and sexual assault — are intertwined; Stinson said as many as 50 percent of domestic violence victims are also rape victims.

“The family justice center is what got this here,” Babb said. “Christy (Harness, the justice center’s executive director) is a real advocate and a good leader in that position. She’s going to do a wonderful job. She pulled SAI in. Who would’ve ever thought that SAI would be a part of that system? But she’s a worker and I’ve enjoyed working with her. She wants to make some changes and she understands it.”

The first prong of the new SAI program fits directly into the justice center model. When a victim of sexual assault comes forward, SAI’s personnel will meet that person at the family justice center, rather than necessitating a trip to SAI’s offices. From there, the SAI counselor will offer support and advocacy, as much or as little as the victim wants, throughout the ordeal — from the medical examination to the criminal investigation and throughout the court process.

“Our sexual assault advocate will be there solely for that victim,” Stinson said. “When police are there at the crime scene or at the hospital, they have their job to do and they’re wonderful at that. And the prosecutors have their role. But the advocate’s role is solely to support that victim — whatever that victim wants, as much support as they want to have.”

Babb said working through the justice center will help eliminate the unnecessary extra steps that a victim must take.

“We hope that person only has to go to one place, tell their story one time, and then we can coordinate from there what that person needs rather than sending them to all these different places,” Babb said.

Because SAI’s program is funded by a grant through the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs, Babb said it does not deter from the other services offered by the organization.

“We did not have to put up a dime,” she said. “It was an in-kind grant, which we received just because we’re here and we have a building. 

“I want this to be successful,” Babb added. “I’ve found a new population of people that breaks my heart, and I want it to stop. And I believe our county wants it to be successful. You should see the support in the system. There are a lot of folks who want to make a difference. It’s where we live, and if we don’t fix it, nobody is going to.” 

A new ally in fight against domestic violence

For 35 years, Scott Appalachian Industries has advocated for adults with disabilities in Scott County. Through its broad scope — SAI falls under the accountability umbrella of more than 30 state or federal government agencies — the organization’s purpose has been to help those people live independently by offering various support services and programs.

Now SAI has stepped boldly into the arena of domestic violence as a partner of the new Scott County Family Justice Center and as a provider of counseling and advocacy for victims of domestic assault, something that executive director Larry West said “makes me as proud as anything we’ve done in 35 years.” 

It is perhaps an unlikely coalition. SAI administrative director Kaprecia Babb said it herself: “who would’ve ever thought that SAI would be a part of that system?” Yet, for an organization that has long prided itself on meeting the needs of the entire community, SAI’s advocacy for victims of domestic violence is hardly surprising. 

“We have 30-something entities that monitor us; there’s a state car here every week,” Babb said. “But that’s because there are 30-something programs that we’re involved with. We’ve filled in everywhere we’ve found gaps, and we’ve worked hard. It isn’t easy, but we’re here for this community. We’re not afraid of work. If we don’t help people, what we have will be taken away from us. I honestly believe that. God gave it to us and He can take it away from us, so we’d better do our job.”

Babb calls her involvement with domestic violence — first as a board member for the Shelter Society, which operates the county’s women’s shelter, and then as a member of the Scott County Family Justice Center’s advisory panel — an eye-opener. 

“I never knew what a victim goes through until I served on the board of the shelter, and then provided temporary office space for the justice center,” Babb said. “These folks don’t have that excess support that our clients with disabilities have. And I’m hoping that we can help with what we’ve got.”

What Babb saw as she became more intricately familiar with the cumbersome ordeal faced by domestic violence victims is a system full of hurdles — perhaps not intentionally, but just because that’s the way the system works. It’s an approach that the family justice center is hoping to revolutionize. It’s been done in urban areas, like Knoxville, and the local justice center will attempt to do it for the first time in a rural area.

“I sympathize so much for victims, and I get it now. I get why they don’t report,” Babb said. “By the time you’ve sought out all the resources you need, you’ve told everybody in Scott County what happened. At the family justice center, you’re going to tell your story, then you’re going to sit back and be safe while they find the services you need.” 

Babb said the justice center is a long-overdue approach for Scott County.

“It’s just a start,” she said. “I hope we develop something so that we can fix our problems, because we have a lot of problems. There’s so much our county needs. You can’t have everything, but we need to figure out how to have something decent and fix what we don’t have.”