This is what it was like a little more than a decade ago before the formation of Project SAFE, a statewide network of collaborators who provide services for people with disabilities who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.
If a woman with Down syndrome, for example, was sexually assaulted and went to a rape crisis center, folks there had no training in dealing with people with disabilities so they would refer her to an agency for those with disabilities.
In turn, those folks, citing their lack of knowledge about sexual assaults, would refer her back to the rape crisis center.
The result? This woman would receive no services at all.
That all started to change when Project SAFE (Safety and Accessibility For Everyone) formed in 2005. In the decade since, the multidisciplinary network of agencies from domestic violence centers, law enforcement and numerous disability agencies have raised awareness, improved accessibility, trained service providers and transformed the culture for victims with disabilities.
Project SAFE has no physical location but consists of these networks of collaborating agencies.
How does it work? In nuanced, subtle but profound ways, according to Beth Metzger and Meg Savage, Project SAFE co-chairs.
Metzger is a disability rights advocate with Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, and Savage is legal counsel for the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Savage cites a typical example of Project SAFE in action.
She received a call on a recent Sunday afternoon from a director of a domestic violence shelter, saying that a woman with disabilities showed up with service dogs.
“I can’t allow anyone in here with animals,” the director said. “What am I supposed to do?”
Savage investigated the law, specifically the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act, ascertained that the animals were therapy dogs and informed the shelter director that she was required to accept the woman and her dogs.
The result? A domestic violence victim with disabilities received the services she needed.
Complicated Project SAFE cases often involve multiple agencies with numerous moving parts. Metzger shares a dramatic example.
A case manager of a woman diagnosed with an intellectual disability feared that the woman was being victimized by her caregiver.
In fact, the caregiver had held the woman captive for 14 years, deprived her of medical care and prostituted her every day while cashing her SSI checks.
The woman had been raped untold number of times and became pregnant from one of the assaults. The hospital noted that the new mom was malnourished (weighing only 80 pounds), had medical issues and a mouthful of rotten teeth.
The baby was placed in emergency foster care, and the new mother was denied visitation rights.
Her so-called caregiver pulled the woman out of the hospital against medical advice. When police arrived, they placed the woman in protective custody.
Fearing that the woman was not treated as a victim, the case manager called Metzger, who investigated and determined that the woman was a victim of human trafficking.
“She had been victimized a second time,” Metzger said, “because none of the professional agencies up there were talking to each other.”
Jeff Edwards of Protection and Advocacy, a Project SAFE collaborator, traveled to Northern Kentucky, convened all relevant parties and spelled out the full scope of this woman’s situation.
Almost immediately, the woman received medical care and additional needed services, and she moved into a group home.
Even better, a local attorney provided services pro bono to clear obstacles so that the woman could visit with her baby who was in foster care.
The result was a happy mother-child reunion – a reunion that wouldn’t have happened if not for Project SAFE.
The facts around disability and sexual abuse are sobering. People with disabilities are anywhere from two to five times more at risk for abuse, and women with disabilities are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women.
Even worse, 90% of women with developmental disabilities are sexually abused in their lifetime. Only 3% will report it.
“Domestic violence and rape are stigmatized as it is and when you add in disabilities, it’s even worse,” Metzger said.
Added Savage: “That’s why local collaboration is so important. People need to get services in their community.”
Currently, two active collaborations have been formed in Louisville and Northern Kentucky, and Project SAFE is actively looking for more local collaborations.
That’s a goal of the Project’s Executive Committee, which has scheduled four network meetings this year: March 23 in Louisville, June 15 in Northern Kentucky, Sept. 21 in Frankfort for the annual summit and Dec. 14 for the final quarterly meeting.
Executive Committee members represent the following agencies: Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Kentucky Protection & Advocacy; Commonwealth Council on Developmental Disabilities; Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, the state ADA, Department for Behavioral Health/Developmental & Intellectual Disabilities.
Plus, the state Attorney General Office of Victim Services, Department of Juvenile Justice, and Division of Protection & Permanency.
One of the Project’s big successes so far came in 2012 when the state ADA office traveled to every domestic violence shelter and rape crisis center in the state to ensure they were ADA compliant.
If not, Project SAFE helped to arrange for training.
Although so much more needs to be done, Metzger and Savage are gratified by the Project’s success in its first 10 years.
“When we celebrated our 10th anniversary it was a testament to the personal commitment of the people in Project SAFE who made the time to make this work,” Savage said.
“It has made me a better resource, and we have seen that Project SAFE has been woven into the fabric of so many statewide agencies.”
Metzger acknowledged the personal impact the Project has had on her.
“This has made me a better advocate and a better human being,” she said.
“It has increased my empathy and been so empowering to know that we can connect people with disabilities who have been victimized with the services they need.”
Photo: Meg Savage left, and Beth Metzger