Safe Center Makes Strides on Long Island

In 1985, Alabama’s Madison County district attorney Robert E. Cramer was witnessing a broken system that was failing those most desperate for help: abused children. Social services and the criminal justice system were working independently, creating both inefficiency as well as a segmented, repetitious and stressful process for children already facing unimaginable difficulty.

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Cramer worked to combine law enforcement, criminal justice, child protective services and medical and mental health workers into one coordinated team under one roof. In doing so, he created a model for treating all victims of abuse, including the domestic and sexual varieties. This structure has since been replicated throughout the country and there is no better example of its success than Long Island’s Safe Center.

The Safe Center was created in 2014 when two non-profits that separately served victims of domestic and child abuse, the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Coalition Against Child Abuse & Neglect, recognized a need. “Family members of clients being served by one agency most likely also benefited from the services provided by the other,” said Safe Center executive director Cynthia Scott. “The result is a more wholistic approach to serving victims, better communication among staff and a higher rate of conviction for law enforcement.”

By having multiple agencies under one roof, Safe Center is able to provide all the services a victim may need from the moment of the incident until its resolution. When a victim is forced to the hospital, a Safe Center volunteer will be by their side. When that victim’s case is brought to court, a Safe Center attorney will represent them.

To provide these services, which are all free of charge, Safe Center employs a staff of about 100, including attorneys, counselors, social workers and educators. It also relies extensively on generosity, from volunteers answering the Center’s hotline to pro bono lawyers.

The Center’s hotline responds to thousands of calls of violence or abuse annually, casting a wide net in order to help all victims, even those we might not think of. It’s easy to forget that acts like sex trafficking occur in our bucolic environs—but they do, far more often than most would imagine. “Each year our hotline receives nearly 300 referrals for adults and teens that have been identified as victims of sex and labor trafficking or are at high risk of being targeted.”

The Bethpage-based operation also receives approximately 1,000 sexual violence calls annually. Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising considering one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. And the calls have shown signs of increasing in light of the ongoing national conversation on sexual abuse. “Many people contacting us now are mentioning the #MeToo movement as being inspiration to come forward, [and] people who are already receiving services are saying that they’re feeling more empowered now.”

The silver lining of these current events is that they have brought sexual assault to the forefront and in turn may help cure an epidemic. “Although we’ve done this work for more than 35 years, the attention being given these issues is giving us more of an opportunity to go out into the community and get the message out about stopping sexual violence…These issues have always been there. Finally, this national moment is forcing people to pay attention. Sexual violence is a public health crisis. For years it happened in the dark. Now a light is being shined on the issue. The Safe Center is ready and willing to be a part of this moment and help Long Islanders work to create a world where people do not have to worry about being victimized and helping those who’ve already suffered victimization know there is help and there is hope.”