Karen McCoy, SANE board member, Michelle Dickens, executive director of SANE, and Keith Howard, chief deputy for the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office address the Morgan County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Sept. 7 about opening a family protection center in the county.

Morgan County’s first-ever family protection center is slated to open later this year, specializing in forensic examinations for sexual assault victims and will eventually broaden its services to aid domestic violence victims and their families.

“I am puzzled it has taken this long,” said Morgan County Chief Deputy Keith Howard to the Morgan County Board of Commissioners last week. “Historically, Morgan County has never had any robust victim services. Unfortunately, we have not served our victims very well.”

“Historically Morgan County has relied on victim services from organizations outside the county, so the coordination needed to accommodate victims with out-of-county services tends to place the burden on the victims,” said Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley. “As the sheriff, this is not acceptable. The citizens of Morgan County deserve better.”

But that is about to change, as the Morgan County Commissioners approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the Athens-based group, SANE, to run a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days a week center out of a vacant fire station on Missions Road in Madison.

SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) program provides “victim forensic examinations and evidence collection, court testimony, and community prevention education related to rape, sexual and physical assault,” according the the Athens-Clarke County program. “ACC-SANE Program functions as a non-profit 501 (c) 3 agency and is currently governed by a board of directors...On Call Advocates participate in a 24-hour/7-day a week On Call Rotation to provide emergency accompaniments for forensic medical exams.”

“This is something we are going to grow and in 20 years from now we are going to look back and see that this had a huge impact on our county,” said Howard.

County Manager Adam Mestres praised the program and welcomed its leaders to open a center in Morgan County.

“If we can provide a public service to those in need, I think it is well worth it,” said Mestres.

The program will not cost the county anything, as SANE will staff the center and pay additional utility costs.

According to Howard, Morgan County Sheriff’s Office investigators currently have to seek services outside of the county for victims of sexual assault, either in Milledgeville, Macon or Athens.

“It places an extra burden on the victim,” explained Howard.

When the new SANE center opens its doors in Morgan County on Nov. 1, local victims will have a safe, nearby facility to be examined and expedite sex crime investigations.

“The family protection center will provide a space on Missions Road to conduct physical examinations of victims, both for adults and children,” explained Howard. “They will provide forensic interviews, forensic medical exams, and information for families or individuals about counseling.”

Howard is hoping the center will expand quickly to help domestic violence victims.

“The first phase of this will be to provide the sexual assault component, but what we hope to grow into over the next couple of years is a more robust domestic violence center as well,” said Howard.

Howard is pleased with the development of the family protection center, noting that it will bring Morgan County more fully into the demands of 21st century investigating.

“The family protection center will help us become more victim-centric and focused in those areas of growth,” added Howard. “Now, we will be able to handle things within the county and there will be better coordination.”

Howard has a long history of conducting criminal investigations and now serves as the Georgia Coordinator for the Georgia Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, a task force that investigates DNA hits that identify unresolved sexual assaults from the sexual assault backlog.

“I have seen a number of these sexual assault investigations fail because the proper evidence wasn’t collected and the proper information wasn’t gathered,” said Howard. “I am passionate about getting this right. I see the failures of older cases and do not want to see the same mistakes made today.”

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