Response Inc. aims to break cycle of abuse violence

Pinwheels planted by Response Inc. spin outside the Shenandoah County Circuit Courthouse in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

There is only one place in Shenandoah County that addresses sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Response Inc., Shenandoah County’s primary resource combating domestic violence and sexual abuse, wants a different response to whether cultural attitudes have changed toward these crimes.

The anecdotal evidence isn’t a nice answer.

Providing sanctuary, hope and healing to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, the nonprofit organization has conducted mock rape trials with junior and senior high school students three times annually for the past seven years.

The scenario of the mock trial reviews the legal definition of rape and sets up circumstances of the assault to meet the definition. Lawyers and law enforcement officials provide real-life consultation over the three-day period.

The students then play roles for all participants — judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, victim, defendant, witnesses and most importantly, the jury.

“The jury has never found the perpetrator guilty (in 21 trials),” said Jennifer Morrison, 49, executive director of Woodstock-based Response Inc. “There have been some hung juries but we are not seeing a societal change in the attitudes of young people. We would love to try (the mock trials) with adults.”

“You would think we would be making progress, but the (rape) statistics are not going down,” said Morrison.

That hasn’t deterred the organization or those who volunteer to help.

“It is the only source there is in the county for sexual assault and domestic violence,” said Peggy Boston, a volunteer Response board member for more than 10 years. “It is a pretty somber organization and that makes it a little harder to get the word out. We want people to know we do more than just house people.”

Response provides companions to victims being examined due to sexual assault, employment and financial counseling, parental education and court advocacy, and sponsors various support groups.

A school outreach program provides educational presentations on domestic violence, sexual assault and teen dating in middle and high schools. A Teen Advisory Board is sponsored and a nationally accredited Child Assault Prevention Project addresses second grade students in Shenandoah County schools, teaching assault prevention skills to children, their parents and teachers.

“They put a lot of energy into these programs,” said Boston. “They spent years getting into the schools and now teens help with fundraisers. Prevention is the best direction to go.”

Such issues resonate in the public arena these days with the discredited story of gang rape at the University of Virginia and the popularity of the graphic sexual domination-themed book and movie “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“We want kids or adults who are dating to be comfortable talking about sex and consent,” said Morrison. “If they can’t talk about consent, they are probably not ready for sex.”

Response has had T-shirts made saying “Let’s talk about sex,” to educate people “to know they can talk about it in a healthy and respectful way,” said Morrison.

“They really are passionate about breaking the cycle (of sexual abuse and domestic violence),” said Joan Anderson, who has been a Response board member since 2005. The 12-member board includes eight women and four men, including law enforcement officials.

“It’s a doer group,” she said. “It’s more self-satisfying than other boards and when you read about a man who has killed his wife and kids and then himself in the paper, it renews my passion (for Response). If we can prevent that for just one family….”

Response owns a three-story house where single women or mothers and children can find live-in sanctuary and empathetic counseling on self-esteem and empowerment without judgment. If a man seeks help — roughly 10 percent of victims are men — he is housed elsewhere while receiving aid.

“We conduct a holistic approach to how to be the kind of person you want to be,” said Morrison. “Every person we talk to matters to us.”

All the services are free and confidential.

The group averages 400 hot line calls a year, dealing with questions that can range from a request for help with an electric bill to how to leave an abusive husband. The group houses approximately 100 women and children annually while being available 24/7 with a staff of 10 – six full time and four part time.

“We want to offer them peace of mind, a place to stay or call for help and help in developing coping skills,” said Morrison.

“Now people recognize the name and ask questions about it,” said Boston. “Just knowing that there is an organization out there that can actually bring someone in and help. Too often those in need go somewhere and they are told, ‘we don’t do that, or go there to do that’ — people just get passed on and passed on.”

Response receives annual funding from state agencies, charitable organizations like the United Way, churches, civic groups and individuals.

The house often encounters unexpected maintenance or a need for improvement – it currently is seeking to raise $135,000 for an internal elevator, possibly through grants or donations.

A fundraiser dinner with silent and live auctions, singing waiters, drinks and entertainment is set for Oct. 24 at the Woodstock Moose Hall. For more information, call 540-459-5599 or email joanstar@shentel.net.