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'I believe you': The culture around sexual assault is changing.

Sandy Steblin, a sexual assault nurse examiner, displays an unopened sexual assault forensic exam kit, more commonly known as a rape kit, Friday at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, in Tampa.  (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Sandy Steblin, a sexual assault nurse examiner, displays an unopened sexual assault forensic exam kit, more commonly known as a rape kit, Friday at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, in Tampa. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Nov. 19, 2018

Barbara Curts was sexually assaulted in 1980.

Just 19 at the time, she lived in a rural, agricultural community in Florida, which didn't have many resources for victims of such crimes.

"Women didn't have the ability to do much at the time," said Curts, now 57. "I attempted to just move on with my life."

A lot has changed since then, she said. More women are speaking out and seeking help after a year of upheaval over sexual harassment and assault — from the #MeToo movement, to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to proposed federal rules that would strengthen rights for accused attackers on college campuses.

The trend is showing up at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, where Curts works as a volunteer, and at the Suncoast Center in Pinellas County. Both organizations are seeing a rise in the number of calls on sexual assault hotlines.

"We're hearing from more people who were assaulted, maybe two weeks ago or two decades ago, who want to talk about it," said Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of the Hillsborough County nonprofit. "These are people who didn't feel comfortable talking about it before. Maybe it's becoming more socially acceptable from what people are seeing happen in the news."

More victims may feel "triggered" by what they see in the news, which may impact their willingness to speak out about it, said Aibgayle Dhani, a manager with the Suncoast Center.

"There are many reasons why someone wouldn't want to report a sexual assault or talk about it," she said. "So many survivors have suffered in silence for a long time."

But there are two sides to this new narrative. One is themed around empowerment, inspired by the women who came forward and publicly named their accusers. The other feels more like a punch in the gut, when harassment or assault is met with inaction.

Reynolds says she has noticed that most survivors just want to be heard, but worry that even after #MeToo, they won't be believed.

"To start a victim along the healing process, we must first validate their experience," she said. "It's not up to other people to determine what happened to you and how it makes you feel. Our job at the crisis center isn't to investigate. It's to say, 'I believe you.'"

That line of thinking translates into the center's services, which include continued counseling and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

The center works with law enforcement in Hillsborough County so that when a victim reports a sexual assault, officers and deputies offer to bring them there for services, as opposed to a local emergency room.

"It's a common misconception that you have to go to the E.R. or a police department," Reynolds said.

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Inside the crisis center's Corbett Trauma Center, visitors won't find white-washed walls or harsh florescent lights, like in a hospital. Instead they'll be brought through a private entrance and led to the "quiet room," a small area with couches, plush chairs and low lighting that feels like someone's living room.

There, survivors meet with a trained victim advocate, who walks them through what comes next after an assault.

Survivors can choose to press charges and file a police report. They can choose to have a rape kit performed, which includes collecting their clothes, swabbing for DNA, a thorough physical exam, and having photos taken of any wounds or trauma. Or they can opt against any of those things.

All of this is explained while a law enforcement officer waits in another room.

"We can perform the test and hold the samples at our center for up to a year. So if a survivor isn't sure if they want to move forward right away, they have the time to think about it," Reynolds said.

Survivors also can shower and change into brand new clothes at no cost after an exam at the center. Advocates keep the shelves stocked with comfortable sweat pants and leggings, and there's a basket full of flip-flops to choose from. They pick out their own bottles of shampoo and toothpaste, too.

The center employs nurse practitioners like Sandy Steblin who are trained to handle sexual assault cases. Sometimes going through the process of the state rape kit can take hours, she said.

"There is a forensic piece to what we do," said Steblin, 59. "It can make people a little nervous. No one has experienced this before until they're a victim, so we try to be calm and mindful of that. They have no idea what they're going to do in the next hour, let alone tomorrow or the next day after an assault."

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Comfort is the priority, but so is doing what the victim wants, Steblin explained. That can be complicated when a victim is a child. The center treats sexual assault victims who are 13 years and older, and is required to report sexual assault when a minor is involved.

The staff also includes victim advocates like April Scott, who are there to offer support. Most of the time, Scott says, she just asks a lot of questions: Are you warm enough? Is there someone I can call for you? Do you want to smoke a cigarette? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Would you rather be alone?

She said her job is often just being the person there to hold their hand. In the past, Scott has helped victims with the legal process after they file charges.

"What I learned on this job was that family and friends of victims aren't always as supportive as you think they would be," said Scott, 29. "Sometimes they don't know how to be. But sexual assault is something that can happen to anyone. Survivors aren't alone in this experience. That's why it's our priority to make sure they feel supported and that we believe and trust in their story."

Curts, the sexual assault survivor who volunteers at the center, now lives in Dover and works at Seacoast Bank. Her role is to be there for victims in those crucial first hours after an attack. When Curts began volunteering in 2009, she never thought much about her own sexual assault. It had been years since she thought much about it at all. But after a few shifts and some middle-of-the-night visits with survivors seeking help, the feelings from that long-ago experience surfaced anew.

"Thirty-plus years later, this has become my therapy too," Curts said. "Helping other people understand that what happened to them is not their fault."

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.