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At 30, SAVAS Helping Sex Abuse Victims Reclaim their Lives

DUMFRIES, Va. — Dara Denham spent years blaming herself after being sexually assaulted.

Abused when she was a child before age 2, and later in her teenage years, Demham, 46, was usually angry, confused, and spent her early 20s bouncing from one promiscuous relationship to the next.

She had sought counseling since age 22, and her therapists labeled her with all sorts of disorders.

“I’ve been called bi-polar. I am not bi-polar. I am not medically changed. I have been abused sexually, and it does have an effect,” said Denham.

She was eventually hospitalized twice. It seemed like no therapist understood her, nor did they ever want to broach the subject of her abuse.

But Denham’s outlook changed when she came to SAVAS (Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy Service) in 2012. Here at their offices in Dumfries — where there are counselors, not therapists – Denham joined a group session with other victims and began to understand, as she puts it, “what is wrong with Dara.”

“Now, I see I was angry because I had no one to protect me,” said Denham.

The school teacher and mother of four has come a long way since her angry 20s. Now on her sixth notebook in which she keeps her personal journal, she writes about her hopes, dreams, poetry, and about the things that inspire her. She’s also started making jewelry as and has become an aspiring artist.

Her’s is considered a breakthrough case and, while they do happen, it can take years for breakthroughs to occur.

“Therapists don’t touch on sex abuse. They don’t know how to deal with it,” said Anna Grivas, who is SAVAS’ Training and Outreach Coordinator. “We can talk about everything from different sex positions, pornography, but when we talk about sexual assault, adults molested as children, incest, that’s taboo? Why? It’s not the child’s fault. It shouldn’t be a secret, because if it’s a secret it’s going to continue happening.”

Founded in 1983 and now apart of ACTS, SAVAS remains the only sexual assault crisis center serving Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park. Its counselors work with anyone over age 12, work with some therapists who are treating abuse victims, and they do not counsel sex offenders. A 24-hour victim telephone hotline, and accompanying sex assault victims to court at no charge are just some of the services offered by the organization.

It’s colorful inside the group therapy room, where group members are encouraged to talk about what’s on their minds. They’re encouraged to use color markers to draw on paper to depict what they are feeling.

At a recent event in April to celebrate SAVAS’s 30th anniversary called “Behind the Mask” at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, masks depicting the thoughts of sex assault victims were hung throughout the foyer. It was a chance for outsiders to peer into a victim’s mind.

Written on one of the masks was a simple question: “Why am I suffering so much now from my past when my past is over? Sometimes I think it’s not over. I can’t trust anymore. I’m still suffering and I have my pain still with me.”

Theatre students from George Mason University also took to the stage with series of sketch performance art, including a one-act play that told the disturbing story of a girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepbrother, as well as a mother who blamed the victim — her own daughter — for the crime.

The event was a culmination of two years of plannin and it marked the first-ever event for the SAVAS organization.

Denham says seeking therapy at SAVAS is not about finding a destination to being for feeling better, but, like a work of art, describes it as a work in progress. The sessions can be fun, but that doesn’t mean her counselors don’t have to hold her hand or help her wipe away tears from time to time.

“It used to be that I really couldn’t like Dara at all because I wasn’t allowed to. Now, not only am I allowed to it’s a requirement and it’s as fun as the day is long.”

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