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More help on the way for victims of sexual assault in Sullivan County

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More help is on the way for victims of domestic violence in Sullivan County. The Family Justice Center isn't open yet, but thanks to a state grant, it's just filled one of its most important positions: a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) coordinator.

Karen Watkins has spent almost 20 years working as an investigator in Sullivan County and Kingsport.

"I specialized in domestic violence, adult sex crimes and child abuse," she said.

Now she's taking on a new role at the Family Justice Center to tackle the same problem.

According to the TBI crime report in 2016, there were 268 sexual assaults in Sullivan County. FJC director Karen Boyd said that's one of the highest rates in Tennessee.

"As we were looking at the rate of sex crimes in the county, we really just started saying we can't wait," she said. "We can't wait for another agency to step in and fill the gap."

The FJC will house advocates and sexual assault nurses, known as SANEs. Watkins said right now, there are no sexual assault nurses in Sullivan County. So they are reaching out to hospitals.

"We are hoping that they will be on board with allowing their ER nurses to become SANE-certified," Watkins said.

Both agreed for this to work, all of these resources need to be under one roof. As a former investigator, Watkins said she's seen too many victims give up because the legal process is so complicated.

And she said police can file a report, but there's very little they can do afterward.

"Having been there, they are just overwhelmed with calls," Watkins said. "They don't have the time to show that extra compassion, so it kind of leaves the victim hanging."

"We 100% care about the victim," Sullivan County Sheriff's Dept. PIO Kristen Quon said. "But we're also trying to process this case, and get justice for the victim."

Watkins said the FJC will show victims there is an easier way to get help.

"Then law enforcement and the district attorney's office can successfully prosecute these cases because our victims will stick with us," she said.

The FJC is looking for volunteers to train as sexual assault advocates. The center plans to be fully up and running in May.

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