Founder says rape crisis center treated as 'a political football' - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Founder says rape crisis center treated as 'a political football'

By Kontji Anthony - bio | email | Follow us on Twitter

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC-TV) - Over 30 year ago, Julia Howell founded the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, a facility that recently came under heavy scrutiny after two teenage rape victims' tests were delayed because of a nursing shortage.

Several nurses who lived outside the city were fired after the Memphis City Council enfored new residency rules for city employees. Others nurses said they left because the city failed to support the program, once a national model of efficiency.

"I am very saddened, and in some ways it makes me very angry," said Howell, the center's former director.

District Attorney Bill Gibbons said the nursing shortage could result in rapists going free because of a lack of evidence, something Howell says the community should be very concerned about.
    
"For the rapists, it's a get out of jail free card," she said.
 
Howell, the center's first employee, said that when the center first opened, rape was something that was not discussed.  

"Prior to the rape crisis center being set up in 1976, people didn't even want to say the word 'rape' on television or radio or the newspaper." 

Howell planted community roots in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. 

"We had relationships with Memphis city police, Shelby County Sheriff's Department to take care of all their victims. We ended up bringing in the Department of Human Services when they had children that were abused."

Howell's round-the-clock staff of nurses, counselors and trained volunteers had two missions: to collect evidence to prosecute rapists and to help rape victims get their lives back.

"Having worked that hard for so long ago, it saddens me that it has fallen into a political football," she said.

Howell says she's concerned about current unfilled shifts and funding."I was quite disheartened to see that a lot of that money has not made it to the rape crisis program to fund the services that are needed."

She says the program probably floundered when the city failed to hire a new director for almost a year.

"To the rape victims, it says we don't care," she said.

Howell says she takes some solace in the city council's recent call for an audit.

And she has a message for Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

"I would hope that he would take this to heart, a call from the citizens to look into this," she said.

Howell says she left the center after six years to take a job out-of-state. But before she left, she says MSARC went from being a community program to becoming a regular line item on the city budget. It should, she says, be treated as a critical arm of the law.
   
The mayor's office recently named a new director for the center, Dr. Betty Winter of the Memphis Police Department. They also hired six new nurses and reduced the number of unfilled shifts. 

But Howell says the center also needs a full-time nursing coordinator and an advisory committee that would help create a buffer between politics and rape victims.

"We had an advisory committee that was set up to help us navigate the medical protocols we needed for the medical protocols," she said. "We had someone from the district attorneys office who was our liaison. We had someone from UT Department of OB/GYN. We had someone from the health department, and we had several people from the community mental health programs."
    
The Memphis City Council will meet this week to discuss the future of MSARC, which Shelby County is considering taking over.
  

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