A safe place for all: Hearts of Hope’s inclusive approach to survivor support

Jencie Olivier, Sexual Abuse Response Center Coordinator (left) and Grayson Trahan, Sexual Abuse Response Center Survivor Advocate (right) stand in front of a wall with dozens of colorful handprints in Hearts of Hope's Children's Advocacy Center.
Jencie Olivier, Sexual Abuse Response Center Coordinator (left) and Grayson Trahan, Sexual Abuse Response Center Survivor Advocate (right) stand in Hearts of Hope's Children's Advocacy Center. Elliot Wade

Editor’s Note: This story includes discussion of suicide and sexual assault. If you are in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To report sexual assault and access resources, call the 24/7 crisis support line at 337-233-RAPE (337-233-7273). To report suspected child abuse, call 855-4LA-KIDS (855-452-5437).

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as mental health issues in young people continue to rise, access to resources haven’t yet caught up to meet demand. According to the Centers for Disease Control, feelings of distress are more common among students across racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ students and female students. Rates of sexual violence among female students have also increased, with one in 5 experiencing sexual violence in the past year, up 20% since 2017. Lafayette was hit with the harsh reality following the death of transgender UL student Basil Brown, who accused several individuals of committing acts of sexual violence against him before his suicide.

Hearts of Hope, the only sexual trauma center in Acadiana, wants to make resources for all survivors of sexual assault accessible and safe.

Entering through the Children’s Advocacy Center, those seeking services at Hearts of Hope are greeted by a rainbow of handprints dating back as far back as 1997. Each handprint marks a life touched by the organization: community partners, survivors, volunteers, employees and law enforcement alike.“These are all people who wanted to leave their mark at Hearts of Hope,” says Jencie Olivier, Sexual Abuse Response Center Coordinator. The handprints represent a vast team of advocates and volunteers, sending a clear message to survivors that they aren’t alone in their fight.

Hearts of Hope oversees all sexual assault reporting and case management for children and adult victims in the community. It offers a wide array of services under three programs: the  Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) and the Sexual Abuse Response Center (SARC).

In the Children’s Advocacy Center, Hearts of Hope provides services for children who have disclosed abuse and their families. 

Specially trained interviewers speak to children in rooms that are audio and video recorded, while representatives from law enforcement and the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) can watch the interviews live from a separate room. All services–including counseling for the child and their family–are free.

“We look at them as a family, like a whole family. And so those kids in their family are able to receive services,” says Olivier. 

At hospitals, the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) provide specialized care for survivors of sexual assault in the emergency room. Nurses provide and utilize specialized sexual assault evidence collection kits and are able to inform survivors of options for potential next steps, including accessing treatment services and reporting a crime to law enforcement. 

Hearts of Hope is invested in supporting their clients in the long term, seeing them through their entire cases and beyond.

“We’re with these survivors throughout the whole case investigation all the way through until whenever the survivor finds their justice. So sometimes we’re with people for a whole lifetime,” notes Olivier. 

Other services provided generally fall under their Sexual Abuse Response Center (SARC). There, the team provides education, individual and group counseling and advocacy services for survivors. They hold an adult survivor group, a caregiver support group, a teen support group, and an LGBTQ+ support group which generally meet once a week. After noticing an increased need for support after Brown’s passing, the LGBTQ+ group shifted to holding meetings twice a week.

Olivier says that overall the organization prides itself in creating a space safe for the healing process to begin.

“Hearts of Hope wants any survivor to know of sexual violence to know that, that Hearts of Hope is a safe place and that you are seen, heard and believed here.”