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Little house, big heart

After 25 years in a modest brick ranch in Duluth, the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center faces an unknown future.


If only for a few more weeks, the little house is still its old familiar self.

The calm that cloaks the spit of street where it’s wedged between Buford Highway and downtown Duluth hasn’t yet been shattered. The small sign reading “GSAC” remains noticeable only to those determined — even desperate — to find it.

The doors are locked up tight. That never changes.

Yet the little house is never closed to anyone who needs its help.

Twelve years ago, Christie Watson was one of them. She’d never even heard of the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center on that horrific night when she was raped and had her throat slashed and doctors needed six hours just to stitch her back together.

For 25 minutes, she’d been repeatedly violated in different rooms of her Buford apartment by a neighbor she’d never met.

Put in a chokehold. Raped and sexually assaulted. Her throat and neck sliced with a box cutter.

At Gwinnett Medical Center afterward, Watson refused to close her eyes, fearing, “If I fell asleep, I’d never wake up.”

And so she missed nothing GSAC did for her: Not the specially trained nurse who examined her and collected key evidence. Not the victim’s advocate who held her hand and answered all her questions.

Not GSAC executive director Ann Burdges, who regularly visited her and her parents after she left the hospital. Not the counselors who continued to work with her at the little house even after her attacker had pleaded guilty to multiple charges and gone to prison for life.

“I never, ever thought of this as a physical location,” Watson, 32, says now. “For me, it’s family.”

And family’s always there for you, even after a dozen years.

Even when the doors are locked up tight.

Click!

The deadbolt turns loudly on this late afternoon in April as Burdges opens the door and pulls Watson inside and into a warm embrace.

They’ve always kept in touch. Still, there’s a special urgency to today’s visit as Watson tells Burdges she’s hit a wall trying to find out if her attacker’s life sentence remains unchanged.

“Also, where is he now?” she asks somewhat hesitantly.

Burdges promises to find out. After all, they’re used to tough challenges at GSAC, which a volunteer started in the basement of her suburban home in 1986. It subsequently willed itself into becoming a full-service sexual assault facility for adults and children headquartered in the little brick ranch house that’s owned by the city of Duluth.

Yet what’s happening now may be too big a challenge even for GSAC to overcome. After nearly 25 years, its $1-a-year lease has finally run out. Duluth is knocking the house down and has told GSAC to vacate by July 1.

“Where will you go?” Watson asks near the end of her two-hour visit.

“We don’t know yet ...” Burdges’ voice trails off as the full meaning of the question sinks in:

There’s more to GSAC than just the little house.

But without the little house, will there still be GSAC?


2
Mothers of invention
In the beginning, there were two ticked-off women.

They were the absolute right duo to have come together by chance in Gwinnett Medical Center’s emergency room in 1986, as it would turn out. Not that anyone could’ve predicted then what a potent combo this seemingly mismatched pair — one a young doctor, the other a retired movie advertising whiz — would quickly become.

Cora Salvino and Ann Smiley hardly knew each other when they crossed paths that day, didn’t immediately see themselves as fellow travelers on the road to the little house and the giant leap forward it would come to represent. How could they have? There was no rape crisis center in the county then, no counselors, support groups and limited training for doctors on how to examine rape and sexual assault victims in emergency rooms, where they usually ended up.

A year earlier, police had convinced Salvino, an OB/GYN just starting her practice in Lawrenceville, to take over doing the county’s rape exams from a soon-to-retire male doctor. “Just think how much better these women will feel having a woman do their examination,” she’d been told. When she’d asked where to send the bill after the first one, the conversation had gone like this:

Send it to the patient.
Not if you want me to keep doing these.

“It seemed to me to be a second assault of the victim to ask her to pay for the investigation of the crime,” Salvino says now from her home in Casper, Wyo.

The police department began paying for the exams.

So at least something had improved by the following year when Salvino asked for help from a hospital volunteer — Smiley — in coaxing a traumatized rape victim up off the ER floor, where she was curled up in a ball, and holding her hand during the exam.

Afterward, Salvino found herself telling Smiley how often rape victims arrived there alone and scared. And then they didn’t even get to leave with the clothes on their backs: What they wore during the attack frequently was taken away as evidence, leaving them with only a paper hospital gown.

And that’s where it all began, right there in the hospital ER. Salvino had read a Reader’s Digest article about a group in another part of the country that gave rape victims emotional support.

“They were there to hold your hand, give you a shoulder to cry on, put a call into your family — whatever you needed,” Salvino recalls now. “I said, ‘Surely we can come up with a group to do that much.’

“And Ann said, ‘Surely we can come up with some clothes so they don’t have to walk out of here naked.’ ”

They started the Gwinnett County Rape Crisis Center in Smiley’s condo basement. While Salvino continued examining victims at the hospital, Smiley convinced a local lingerie manufacturer to donate “reject” bras for victims to wear home and began recruiting law enforcement, county officials and volunteers to the cause. They in turn recruited more volunteers. One minute a local CPA was chatting with someone at a business event and the next thing she knew, she’d been talked into helping the center file for tax exempt status. Not long after that, Carol Burdges, the CPA and sister-in-law of GSAC’s current executive director, was part of a four-person contingent Smiley led to Memphis to scope out its rape crisis center.

From an itemized hotel bill to a sample “Forensic Exam of Alleged Sexual Assault (Children)” form, Smiley filed everything from that trip inside a fat notebook with “The Project” scrawled on the front. It still sits on a shelf at the little house today, a visible reminder of everything the Gwinnett Rape Crisis Center hoped it could become and how GSAC has surpassed that ambitious vision.

“She said, ‘OK, this is what we need to do. We need a standalone place,’ ” Carol Burdges recalls now about Smiley, who died from lung cancer in 1994.

“And that’s when she approached the city of Duluth about the building.”


3
Humble beginnings
   At first blush, the little house that Everett and Mary Bagwell and their two children had moved into around 1957 was an odd place to later put a rape crisis center. On the other hand, it fit in perfectly: For nearly a century, people had been coming to that little piece of land to put down roots and dream big.

Everett’s parents, Carl and Othella, had owned some 10 acres on what was then South Peachtree Street since the early 1900s. For a long time it was a working farm where their grandson, Jack Bagwell, remembers plowing by mule and picking cotton around age 8. “Paw-Poe” and “Ma-Moe” lived in a big “homeplace-style” house next door to where the little house would eventually rise up on a patch of ground that had previously been a cow pasture and Duluth’s own version of Centre Court at Wimbledon.

“In the 1930s when tennis became the thing, my Aunt Farris (Everett’s sister) begged to have a tennis court, so my grandfather let them put one up next to the street,” Carolyn Miller, Jack’s sister, writes in an email. “As I understand it, all of the teenagers in Duluth (not many at the time) would come and play tennis.”

Everett had moved his little family out from Atlanta after World War II and he eventually built the ranch house to be near his aging parents. He worked as a school principal and later started the Bank of Duluth and owned the movie theater downtown. For a time, the little house’s backyard was a quail farm.

Everett died in 1986 and soon after the city bought his widow out and put a road around one side of the property. But the little house stayed right where it was, right where the rape crisis center needed it.

“I was so proud,” Miller writes, “that it went for something good.”

By the mid-1990s, though, the rechristened Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center and Children’s Advocacy Center had outgrown its name and surroundings. The goal of having specially certified nurses perform exams onsite had been achieved and Gwinnett’s Juvenile Court judges had asked GSAC to start handling child victims as well.

The little house had already undergone one modest expansion in 1993, when the carport was enclosed. Now it was busting at the seams. A $250,000 capital fund raising was launched and among the earliest supporters was Duluth, whose city council voted late in 1995 to contribute up to $6,000.

Construction took about two years to complete, during which time GSAC camped out in a trailer and, later, at Salvino’s OB/GYN practice. It was all worth it when they got back to the little house, now handicapped accessible and nearly doubled in size with new exam and intake/interview rooms, a private victim’s bathroom, additional office and training space and more.

And it makes what’s happening now heartbreaking for many people.

“My mom would be very upset,” says Kip Smiley, who was 21 when his mother turned their basement into the Gwinnett Rape Crisis Center. “She’d be saying, ‘It’s not over.’ ”

“And it would not end with her until the bulldozers came.”


4
Days are numbered
The letter turned up last September, like a distant relative delivering bad news. The little house was on life support. Termite infestations and “other maintenance issues” were the culprits.

“This is nothing new to them,” the letter’s author, Duluth city manager Tim Shearer, says of GSAC. “There’s been obvious issues associated with the building for many years.”

It’s true. Minutes from Duluth City Council meetings contain several references to termite and septic tank problems over the years.

But it’s also true that GSAC had been here once before: A July 2006 letter identified “changes that are occurring in the downtown” and gave the center two years notice. It turned out to be a false alarm and GSAC stayed put. Probably, they figured, because the economy tanked.

But they know Duluth means it this time. What’s more, they say they don’t blame the city.

“The Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center is unconditionally grateful to the city of Duluth for all they have done for us for the past 25 years,” says board president John H. Bedard Jr. “If it wasn’t for the city, our services now might look very, very different.”

That’s a sobering prospect in a county where 1,753 people got help from GSAC in 2012 — including 254 adults and children who received forensic-medical evidentiary rape and sexual assault exams. And in a state with 159 counties and only some two dozen sexual assault centers. Most are located in or around metropolitan areas like Atlanta. Besides GSAC and Grady Hospital, sexual assault assistance resources are available in Carrollton, Decatur, Jonesboro, Marietta and Clayton County, according to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. And the definition of a center can be flexible, with some sharing space with battered women’s or drug treatment facilities.

It’s a far cry from the ideal. The U.S. Department of Justice recently recommended deploying a “coordinated team approach” of advocates, health care providers, law enforcement reps, prosecutors and others to assist sexual assault victims and hold offenders accountable.

From the outside, the little house doesn’t appear to be exactly what DOJ had in mind. Inside, though, is another story. Two full-time advocates coordinate and support victims through the lengthy process of medical exams and information-gathering, including law enforcement interviews. They also oversee a network of volunteer advocates who are on call 24 / 7.

Two staff attorneys monitor cases for possible civil issues, like obtaining Temporary Protective Orders or Crime Victims Compensation. One full time and five on-call nurses specially trained in medical forensic care and evidence collection work onsite. There are also evidence storage facilities and a couple of cozily furnished rooms (including one with child-sized chairs) where police do interviews.

One of Gwinnett’s top sex crimes cops swears by the little house’s importance.

“You see that little house and you have no idea what goes on in there,” says Sgt. Randy Work of the Gwinnett County Police Department’s Special Victims Unit. “We have everything we need over at GSAC and our people are used to working there.”

It’s not just personal preference. It’s standard operating procedure now in Gwinnett in rape and sexual assault cases.

“If they don’t need emergency medical care, the protocol says law enforcement will call GSAC and accompany [the victim] or meet them there,” says Gwinnett County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Tracie Cason.

And if GSAC’s no longer there?

“If they don’t have a place to perform exams, folks will have to go back to (hospital) ER’s, or we’re going to have to figure out some kind of agreement with some surrounding sexual assault centers,” Cason says. “And if we can’t do that ...”

If they can’t do that?

“We go back to where we were before.”


5
Next step unknown
That’s never been an option at the little house. In the months since the city’s letter arrived, GSAC’s outreach to civic and business leaders has failed to turn up a suitable replacement facility so far; on the plus side, there are offers to donate materials and labor to renovate the new place, wherever it turns out to be.

In April they found an ideal building in Duluth that became available due to a foreclosure. Unfortunately, a bank that owns the property isn’t negotiating. “It is what it is,” says board president John Bedard. “We buy it or not.”

What they would need: About $350,000, far beyond the nonprofit’s reach. What that would buy: peace of mind.

“It really doesn’t take a lot of money to ensure our permanent longevity in Gwinnett County,” Bedard says. “We already have very generous commitments of plumbing, roofing and many other things we’d need to do a buildout.”

In late April, Bedard contacted the city, asking that GSAC be allowed to stay beyond July 1 as it continued searching for a new home. In early May, that request was denied.

“I must keep in mind and be concerned for the health and safety of anyone working or receiving services in any city owned/leased building,” city manager Shearer responded in writing, again mentioning the termite damage — and something else not mentioned in that first letter: asbestos. In an interview, Shearer says a number of city-owned buildings were checked for asbestos last summer and that it wasn’t a danger right now “as long as you don’t disturb anything.” Still, it was sufficiently unnerving that GSAC hired its own inspector to do air quality checks of the building.

GSAC’s own inspection confirmed the little house presently poses no danger to occupants. For the first time, though, a bit of quiet exasperation on GSAC’s part became apparent. They’re already scrambling to get out by July 1 while continuing to provide services. A late-breaking asbestos scare didn’t help.

Since the week before Memorial Day, the search for the little house’s successor is preoccupying everyone. Finding a rental property is the best option now. While GSAC’s agents check out prospects, Burdges pores over existing grants and other available funding sources to figure out how to pay as much as $5,000 rent per month. The board is lining up movers who can transfer the house’s contents in one day if necessary and is mulling plans for everything from remodeling to immediately turning on utilities at a new place.

Meanwhile, at the old place, it’s still business as usual, as much as possible. When the letter arrived last fall, Burdges shared its contents with the staff, then told them: “That’s for us to worry about.” Meaning her and the board.

“The type of work they do is hard enough,” Burdges says of the nurses, lawyers and victim advocates who bear daily witness to people’s cruelty to others. “On top of that, I don’t want them to go home and worry about what we’re going to do.”

Years ago, Burdges had been a sheriff’s undercover narcotics investigator in Florida. Now the old instincts are kicking in: A situation would turn dicey, she recalls, and “you’d harness that adrenalin of the moment to focus on what you need to do next. You keep pushing forward.”

At GSAC, that means applying for grants for next year. And hiring a summer legal intern. And making good on that promise to rape victim Christie Watson.

About a week after Watson’s visit, Burdges sends her an email saying her attacker is currently incarcerated at Johnson State Prison near Dublin and likely won’t ever be eligible for parole. And they’ll keep right on checking for her, Burdges says, “if Christie calls us every year, or 10 years from now.”

Even if they don’t know where they’ll be doing it.

Only one thing is definite right now. The little house is going away. “It is scheduled to be demolished,” says Duluth City Engineer Melissa Muscato. “There will be no delay.”

 

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Staff  writer Jill Vejnoska first came upon the little house in Duluth last December while reporting a story on funding cuts and other challenges facing rape crisis centers around the state. That’s when she learned about the even bigger hurdle facing GSAC: Its lease was running out and they had no idea where they would go after nearly 25 years in the same location. A tour of the house took her by a small display case devoted to co-founder Ann Smiley, where Vejnoska heard for the first time the story of GSAC’s beginnings in a suburban basement. Right then she decided more people needed to hear the whole GSAC story, including this latest, unfinished chapter: “We all hope we won’t ever need a place like GSAC,” Vejnoska says. “But what if you did and it simply wasn’t there anymore?”

Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

 

About the reporter

Jill Vejnoska has worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 20 years, covering everything from sports and politics to television and food. Some of the stories she’s covered include Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign and synchronized swimming at the Olympics. She is a native of Westfield, N.J.


About the photographer

Jason Getz joined the AJC as a staff photographer in October 2005. He is the lead photographer at the state Capitol during the legislature session and also covers education, transportation, immigration, sports and features. A graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology, he previously worked at the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama and the Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa.

Next Week: Closer to retirement than college, this toddler’s dad is humbled by fatherhood.


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