Hamilton County crime victims honored as sex assaults increase

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Those in attendance stand for the invocation during an event recognizing National Crime Victims Rights Week at the Family Justice Center on Friday.

Hamilton County officials and nonprofit leaders gathered under a gray sky on Friday to honor victims of crimes in the county.

As demand increases for services for crime victims in the Chattanooga area, the city and county declared next week, April 23-29, as Crime Victims Rights' Week, observed nationally since 1981.

"We believe that people have the right to live free of violence and to have a safe space to come into to receive services and to heal and to tell their stories," Family Justice Center Executive Director Regina McDevitt said at the Friday ceremony outside the center.

(READ MORE: Demand for sexual assault services is at record high in Chattanooga area)

The center houses several nonprofit groups that serve victims of domestic and sexual violence, with representatives from the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office and the Chattanooga Police Department.

Reports of homicide and assault were down last year from 2021, data from the Police Department shows.

But reported forcible sex offenses, including rape, sexual assault and sex crimes involving children, increased around 5% in 2022 from the year before, with 17 more reported cases.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga police reach high homicide clearance rate, decline for other violent crimes)

Demand for sexual assault forensic exams rose 24% last year, particularly involving teenagers, according to Chattanooga's Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

A survey on domestic violence in Hamilton County, conducted by the Family Justice Center, found a need for more domestic violence assessments in health care systems and more training around the county on how to recognize signs of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

Last year, the center trained more than 4,000 people, McDevitt said Friday. After the survey, six task forces focused on sectors including health care, faith groups and the legal system were formed to study how to drive down domestic violence and better coordinate the response to it, McDevitt said.

The Children's Advocacy Center, which serves children reporting abuse and their family members, saw more people last year than any other in more than 30 years of operation, Executive Director Kristen Pavlik McCallie said at an event for sexual assault awareness earlier this month.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County seeing more teen sexual assault victims seeking forensic exams)

"When folks ask if that's positive or negative, I respond — because it means more kids are being heard and supported — it's positive," McCallie said at Friday's ceremony.

But the most requested service at the center by people experiencing domestic violence is legal help, attorney John Jolley with Legal Aid of East Tennessee said following the ceremony. Often, they need help getting a protection order from an abuser, Jolley said. Legal Aid can represent victims for free in civil matters like protection orders and custody issues, Jolley said.

Chattanooga also has resources for victims of human trafficking, said Love's Arm Executive Director Inza Hagins-Dyer. A 2019 survey found that most sex trafficking victims in the Chattanooga area are women who entered into trafficking before turning 18.

"That's the bad news," Hagins-Dyer said. "The good news is we're here to bridge the gap."

Crime victims also play an important role in getting crimes solved, Chattanooga investigator Lt. Joseph Shaw said in a March interview. If a victim wants to report what happened, but doesn't want to participate in an investigation or face the person who hurt them in a courtroom, there's only so much police can do.

Victims may be hesitant to report or participate in investigations if the person who committed the crime is close to them — a family member or partner, for example — said Chattanooga Executive Chief Harry Sommers after the ceremony.

Sommers said the department is working to improve trust in the community, particularly among Chattanooga's growing Spanish-speaking population.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.