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Diane Mufson: Thanks to Matthews for aiding rape victims

Jan. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Shortly after relocating to Huntington in 1976, I found a job at the Community Mental Health Center, now Prestera Center, as part of a team designed to lead to improvements in the care of victims of sexual assault.

Nancy Matthews, then the head of the Consultation and Education Division at the center, had written and obtained a quarter of a million dollar grant for this project. She saw a clear need to improve the attitude and interactions of professionals who came into contact with victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Nancy Matthews passed away last fall. Considering the ongoing problems of rape victims from Steubenville, Ohio, to India, it is a good time to offer posthumous thanks for Nancy's work.

Nancy was ahead of her time in many respects. Being a mother of five, she understood and accepted my request for a position that would let me leave work early so that as we settled into Huntington, I could be home for my children after school.

But she was even further ahead in understanding the needs and problems of those who were victims of sexual abuse and assault. Remember this was 37 years ago and these terms as well as "rape" and "incest" were not freely discussed.

That was made clear to me shortly after I began my job when I was invited to a luncheon and told some of the women with whom I was seated that I had to return to work by one o'clock. Asked about my work, I used the word "rape" in my reply. Looking aghast, one woman remarked, "We don't talk about those things."

And that was part of the problem. There was, and in some quarters still is, the belief that if you don't discuss certain things, then they cannot exist or it least they cannot happen to "your" kind of people. It was bad enough that individuals who believed they had never met a rape victim held such attitudes, but it was even more distressing to realize that those who were to provide professional services to rape victims were unprepared and unsympathetic.

In the next few years, my project co-workers, JoDee Gottlieb and Bette Bishop, and I presented the Sexual Assault Education Project to hundreds of professionals in Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln and Mason counties who were likely to come into contact with rape and sexual abuse victims.

With Nancy's goal of improving services to rape victims, we met with doctors, nurses and emergency room staff, police and first responders, teachers, religious leaders, magistrates and others. A few caregivers already had positive levels of knowledge, which would help victims; others were clueless. Most, however, were uncomfortable with the subject and would have preferred to have "someone else deal with it."

Some program attendees insisted that there had never been a "real" rape in their jurisdiction or that the female certainly was "asking for it" by virtue of the type of clothing worn or places frequented. Most caregivers weren't prepared to deal with sexual assault victims and certainly not male victims.

After finishing the Sexual Assault Project, Nancy completed her law degree, first working in Huntington and for the past two decades in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In Huntington, she was active on many boards and groups to help others, but perhaps her most important legacy was her work to improve care for victims of rape and sexual assault. Today our community still benefits from Nancy's work for rape victims. For that, she deserves our posthumous thanks.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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