Trauma-Informed Care at Avalon Healing Center Empowers Survivors of Sexual Violence
Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age and any gender at any time, and when it does, the experience is traumatic. Avalon Healing Center, a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on healing and empowerment for those affected by sexual violence, provides free, confidential services and is staffed 24/7. Avalon is the only program in southeast Michigan that provides comprehensive support focused solely on sexual violence.
“We often refer to ourselves as a one-stop shop here at Avalon, and we really find that it’s important to be able to provide as many resources as we can so our clients don’t have to tell their story again and again,” explains Katie Smith, director of communications at Avalon. Since opening in 2006, Avalon has helped more than 23,000 survivors of sexual violence.
“This comprehensive intake is intentional to not retraumatize a victim, and it’s integral to a trauma-informed approach to care”, adds Trinea Gonczar, Avalon’s director of engagement.
Avalon provides support to clients regardless of when they experienced sexual assault. If the assault was very recent, Avalon provides no-cost medical-forensic exams by a sexual assault forensic examiner to look for injury and gather evidence — performing about 700 exams in 2023 alone.
The client also meets with an advocate who continues to provide support throughout the healing process, including individual or group counseling and holistic therapies like art therapy, yoga, sound bath therapy and massage — even accompanying the client to court, if the client’s case goes to trial.
“We are a comprehensive service. Once you’ve seen us, we stay with you through the whole process,” says Smith, adding that each client’s path is individualized to their needs and wants. “Some people just want to have the evidence collected and they don’t want to go any further than that.”
Empowerment through trauma-informed care
With a focus on empowerment, Avalon supports the mental health of clients, which is critical at a time when it’s not always easy to find mental health support.
Clients who are experiencing trauma might be self-medicating or just trying to survive each day and having access to a mental health professional and a variety of healing therapies — yoga, gardening therapy, art therapy, even poetry — can be healing and empowering.
“We have clients who need services for years on end and we never turn them away. You can come and get support from us as long as you need it, and you can step away for a little bit and if you need to come back, that’s OK, too,” says Smith. “We always want to empower the survivor to make the choice for themselves of how they heal or how they take their healing path. We give them all the tools they need, all the resources they could utilize from us, and they make the choice of how they want to proceed, because that’s also trauma-informed care.”
To put the need in context, Gonczar refers to society’s heightened awareness of breast cancer and breast cancer survivors. Many of us know someone who has experienced breast cancer, but many more of us know someone who has experienced sexual assault.
“(Breast cancer is) 1 in 8. Sexual assault is 1 in 6. So, statistically speaking, the harsh reality is that someone in your circle has been sexually assaulted. Typically, they just have not disclosed this information. Naturally, based on privacy and concerns of victim blaming or shaming, coming forward about being assaulted is much less likely than someone that faces breast cancer,” she says.
Removing barriers and supporting systemic change
Awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault, whether it happened yesterday or decades ago, gives the crime itself a face, says Gonczar. She speaks from her own search for support and her personal connection to Avalon Healing Center as a gymnast and survivor of sexual assault involving Larry Nassar.
“For us as an organization, if an assault happened to you 30 years ago and you were triggered by a case, or a song, or a visual or whatever, and all of a sudden you’re having reenactments or memories that are haunting you and you don’t know what to do, we’ll see you,” she says.
“The whole goal about a one-stop shop is to take away barriers for survivors,” Gonzcar says. Clients at Avalon can receive free mental health support from the behavioral/psychiatric health team, child care while receiving services, transportation to and from services, support in court, follow-up medical care and help with all the other needs that can become so overwhelming to the survivor that they often just give up.
“There’s no better way to protect our own community than to support the survivors and the victims to be able to get the people off the street that are causing harm to our community members,” she says. “Because, in fact, research shows that perpetrators are typically serial.”
Staff members at Avalon coordinate the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) for the Wayne County Sexual Assault Collaborative (WC SAC). WC SAC is a multi-disciplinary collaborative that works to improve overall response and continuum of care. WC SAC is victim-centered and offender-focused and is the best-practice standard for a multidisciplinary approach to sexual assault.
Improving a trauma-informed space, helping clients heal
Avalon is currently in the process of fulfilling the goal of creating and providing a trauma-informed space that feels good to be in and is healing, and having flexible funding is important to meeting that goal. “Those dollars are so important to us because we are looking to make it better, to offer more for our survivors, to help them more, and then to make this model of care something that can be taken anywhere and implemented, because it’s necessary,” Gonczar says.
The organization has provided services to individuals as young as two weeks old to 101 yrs old, victims of sex trafficking, undocumented immigrants — anyone who has experienced any form of sexual violence — and, in addition, has been instrumental in supporting the over 11,000 individuals in Detroit whose rape kits went untested for years. Avalon is helping to develop solutions to these and other challenges, improving the standard of care for survivors of sexual violence. Avalon also actively participates in a strong network of partner organizations that provide specialized support for clients.
Knowing that Avalon exists is important because of the simple truth that any one of us will need Avalon’s support at some point in our lives, says Gonczar.
“I don’t mean to scare anybody, but it’s not a matter of if, It’s a matter of when you’re going to need our services in some capacity,” she says. “Whether it’s a friend, a neighbor, a daughter, a cousin or a brother. There are so many people that struggle and suffer in silence and don’t know where to go, don’t know what to do, don’t even know where to start or where to look.”
Knowing that Avalon exists and understanding the breadth of services available even before they are needed is empowering to every member of the community.
There’s a lot more to know about the many services and support provided by Avalon Healing Center. Visit avalonhealing.org.