The most beautiful, peaceful waiting room in Collin County might be at The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center. Natural light spills over white couches lined with plush, decorative pillows. A hazy blue painting, part-abstract, part-seascape hangs on one wall. Off to the side is a private room where law enforcement officers can take official statements and down the hall are two fully-outfitted clinic rooms where SANE nurses (sexual assault nurse examiners) can conduct forensic examinations. This is Courtney’s SAFE Place, housed at The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center, and Turning Point Executive Director Wendy Hanna couldn’t be happier to have it.
The Rape Crisis Center of Collin County was established in 1982 by Carol Finch, a social worker who saw that after the initial crime report was made, victims of sexual assault were left without any further help. She founded the nonprofit organization in conjunction with the North Texas Medical Center and the McKinney Police Department, creating a unified, professional network and ongoing services. Today, it’s The Turning Point.
Wendy has been the executive director for “four years, October 1st.” Once, she had a career in health care, but she wanted a new purpose and The Turning Point needed a new executive director. At the time, she was drawn to The Turning Point because it was a small nonprofit without much ‘red tape’ and because of the urgency of their mission. Nowadays, it’s exactly where she wants to be.
The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center is now home of Courtney’s SAFE Place, the first 24/7 SANE clinic in north Texas, named in honor of Courtney Underwood, one of the most vocal advocates for sexual assault survivors in the state.
Before the clinic, a victim of sexual assault would have to wait at the hospital, sometimes for hours, to be given a forensic exam. (At Parkland Hospital, the only public hospital in the metroplex, they faced a minimum wait of eight hours.) A Turning Point victim advocate would meet them at a hospital while a SANE nurse would travel to them, since many hospitals do not have SANE nurses on staff. In Collin County, there are only 20.
However, at Courtney’s SAFE Place, all the resources survivors need are housed in one place. Certified victim advocates and trained nurses are there to care for them in the immediate aftermath of an assault. In safety, they can decide if they will file a report to law enforcement. Later, they can return to The Turning Point for counselling. Every one of these services is free of charge and rendered in an environment that’s a far cry from a busy ER waiting room.
“The clinic has been the dream of a lot of people for a long time,” she explains, crediting people like Frisco Police Victim Advocate Haleh Cochran and Collin County DA Greg Willis for their support. It’s modeled on a similar project in Austin, called Eloise House, and now that it’s open, The Turning Point headquarters buzzes with activity. The staff is training law enforcement and local hospitals on how to utilize the new resources the clinic offers, because “things have been a certain way for a long time.” They’re working hard to get the word out about the clinic and what it means. “We’ve been here for 30 years and a lot of people don’t even know about us,” Wendy says.
“It’s really wonderful to have our own clinic now, a one-stop-shop,” Robyn Bowles, the SANE/SART program manager for The Turning Point says. “It’s so necessary because sexual assault is extremely prevalent in Collin County, as it is everywhere. Extremely prevalent.”
Robyn speaks with a hint of a Southern accent. In a former life, she was a pediatric nurse and clinic manager in Grapevine. The Turning Point is what she describes as “her passion colliding with her career.”
While Wendy seems to have a strong backbone but secretly soft heart, Robyn seems to have a lot of heart, but secretly, also a backbone. They have different approaches, but in the end, the same goal. The two women have been working together at The Turning Point for a long time. Wendy keeps the nonprofit running and Robyn does its work.
In 2016 The Turning Point received 1,441 hotline calls. Their trained volunteers made 374 hospital calls for survivors of sexual violence. In 2016, they reached 26,810 individuals through outreach and 11,573 students via education programs.
Wendy delivers the hard truth: “There is something taboo about sex. Otherwise normal men and women—perpetrators—use it as their weapon because it’s easy to hide.”
Sexual assault cases are among the most difficult and murky in the entire justice system. Over the years, The Turning Point has seen dedicated officers hunt down every shred of evidence, pull it all together and present a rock solid case to the county—only for them to decide that sexual assault is too risky to prosecute. Prosecutors have argued in court, only for a grand jury to dismiss it. These cases aren’t exceptional; they’re business as usual. We are still repeating the same story: when it comes to sexual assault we still don’t know who to believe.
Something about sexual assault is hard to judge; harder than child abuse, than murder, embezzlement or fraud. Perhaps some part of us rebels at the idea that one day our bedroom proclivities might be put on trial for others to judge—so who are we to judge?
“It’s the only crime where the survivor blames themselves,” Wendy says. “They do. Every single time, they do. Bystanders blame them too. The stories are all different, but that part is always the same.” To her, it’s not hard to see why. “Look at [the response] to survivors that speak out: ‘It was too long ago.’ ‘You don’t remember the right details.’ ‘You’re in it for money.’ Anyone who comes forward always has reasons not to do it.”
If someone reports that their house was broken into, we believe them. They’re not asked if they invited the robber in. And if the robber is caught and confesses—but insists the homeowner wanted their television stolen—we do not believe the robber.
Robyn agrees. “[Doubt] almost becomes the language we speak. We’re acquainted with it, but it’s such an injustice.” She classifies it as a public health problem because so many people, especially those who aren’t believed and don’t get justice, go on to have chronic health problems. “The best thing you can do for someone is to believe them.”
They recall one particular client who was assaulted on the way back from happy hour by an anonymous driver from a ridesharing program. It should have been a half-hour drive from the bar to her house, where her children and the babysitter were waiting. She was unaccounted for, inside a stranger’s car, for over two hours. When the car pulled up to the house, she wasn’t fully conscious. Her son ran out to the car and saw her undressed in the backseat.
Robyn arrived at the all-too-familiar scene and met two small town police officers there, who had come to take the woman’s statement. She was dazed and in shock as she spoke to the officers, attempting to stay composed. She did her best to fight off the fear and revulsion, but she wanted to be helpful. More than anything, she wanted to undo the whole night and everything else that had led her to that moment. What, she wondered, could she have done differently? Maybe she shouldn’t have had a drink. Maybe she should never have gone out for Happy Hour at all. Maybe she should have driven home drunk. Anything seemed better than recounting the violation to a room full of strangers.
Robyn mentioned that the police would need the clothes the woman had been wearing to use as evidence.
“Oh no, we don’t need the clothes,” one of the officers assured her.
“Yes you do,” she replied, confused. “It’s for DNA evidence.”
“We know they had sex,” the officer said. “We talked to the driver. He said she consented.”
Later, Wendy is still haunted by that encounter. “This was a business transaction. It wasn’t a date. He didn’t know her. She was drunk. [Legally] she couldn’t consent. How could [this officer] not see that?” she asks.
“First responders are incredibly important in the lives of survivors,” Wendy agrees. “They become a cameo appearance in the mind of a survivor. They may be the only thing they remember. Honestly, all you have to say is, ‘I believe you, let’s get you help.’ You may have questions, but wait and listen. That’s so small and so crucial, but the opposite of it is so damning, and we hear it too often.”
“Our first responders can be wonderful,” Robyn adds. “They can use all their authority and expertise to support the survivor and make them feel safe. The police are our partners. Prosecutors are our partners. We want them to work with us and we want to work with them.”
A Plano detective who specializes in sex crimes once said to Wendy, “It’s so ironic. I don’t know one police officer that didn’t get into this work for the same reason you got into yours: to help people. It’s what we both want to do.”
Even if the case is thoroughly investigated, prosecuting sexual assault is notoriously delicate. Wendy remembers working with a teenager and her family for years to finally get their day in court. The police provided rock-solid evidence. The girl was credible; her family was respected. The rape kit had been done promptly. It should have been a slam dunk.
The grand jury still weren’t convinced and dismissed the case.
“Anyone can decide at any point that they don’t buy it and then the case is over,” Wendy says. “We are afraid to accuse and afraid to investigate, afraid to prosecute, afraid to send down judgement.”
A commonly quoted statistic says that false outcries make up two to eight percent of all reports. It comes from a 2010 U.S. study at a major Northeastern university. What the study doesn’t say is that the most common kind of false accusation is a very general outcry of stranger-rape that evaporates before a specific person has even been named.
The most detailed study ever conducted of sexual assault reports actually made to the police was done by the British Home Office in the early 2000s, and examined 216 complaints that were later classified as false. Out of those, a formal complaint was lodged in 126 cases. Only 39 complainants actually named a suspect and of those, just six cases led to an arrest; and only two led to charges being filed. Many cases are never classified as true or false. They fall into the nebulous third category of “unfounded,” meaning there isn’t enough evidence to pursue the matter. No one can say with any certainty how many accusations are authentic and how many aren’t.
“We should be afraid to accuse unjustly,” Robyn says. “No one ever wants to see someone falsely accused. But we have a whole bunch of survivors who aren’t believed.” Believing survivors doesn’t mean forgoing investigation. Eyewitnesses can be wrong. Memory can be misleading. However, doing the opposite—dismissing someone as “crying rape” because a date went bad or they want five minutes in the spotlight—empowers abusers. No one is asking for blanket acceptance, only that each and every outcry is taken seriously and handled with empathy.
Robyn excuses herself to oversee the sealing of evidence from a new case. The work is never done.
As it stands today, experts believe that only 35 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. Any figures about the frequency of false reports are gathered from an incomplete picture of the true horror.
When it comes to the tragedy of sexual assault in Collin County, The Turning Point and their partners are the front lines. In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, their calls jumped 30 percent in just a year, not because sexual assault had grown more frequent, but because more people felt empowered to come forward. Making an outcry can be extremely traumatic for survivors. It means ripping into old wounds and bleeding fresh blood, knowing that skeptics will come test whether their pain is real. If they get their day in court, they do so expecting to be doubted, mocked and scoffed at by the defense, and to have their personal lives put on display. It’s no wonder so many—65 percent—choose to stay silent. However, once one person speaks up, more are inspired to follow suit. Wendy, Robyn and the others at The Turning Point have all fielded similar calls: “I know it’s too late. It’s been too many years since it happened, but I can’t stop thinking about it and I don’t know what to do.”
Time and time again, Wendy has seen that people want to tell the truth; they want justice, and as long as there are passionate advocates and law enforcement officers who will rally alongside them, they can get it. It isn’t important why survivors come forward, when they come forward or what proof they have: all that matters is that they do it. There are many success stories, from successfully prosecuted cases that end with the guilty party behind bars, to former clients who have become survivor-leaders. Courtney Underwood, the namesake of Courtney’s SAFE Place, is a survivor herself.
“Come here,” Wendy says. “This is a place to be believed.”
24-hr Crisis Line 800.886.7273 | theturningpoint.org