■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
June 3 marked the day when Center Against Sexual Assault (CASA) celebrated the grand opening of its new facilities on the second floor of the Bank of Hemet Building at 1600 E. Florida Avenue in Hemet.
Most folks I talk to as I ramble around town have no idea what CASA is or does, and while they may keep a low profile, the organization does a lot and is involved in all areas of abuse.
Diana Barnes-Fox is head of the counseling department. “We provide all-inclusive counseling for everyone – men, women and children – covering the areas of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault and for children who have suffered any kind of trauma.”
For children, counseling often occurs in the form of art projects and play therapies.
“Our new location,” said CASA President Rick Thompson, “is more centrally located than the old offices in Farmer’s Corner at San Jacinto Street and Menlo Avenue. Also, I can have my old office space back, which CASA has been using for their headquarters for several years.”
Rachel Leal oversees the entire operation.
“I am responsible for all advocacy training, preparing new advocates for the various functions of an advocate, such as going out to hospitals, courthouses and police stations with the victim,” said Leal. “Our advocates provide emotional support, say right after an assault has taken place, to be there with a victim, provide solace for them and their families, who also suffer trauma for such crimes. We bring a bag of necessities and a change of clothing because often the law enforcement officers need the clothing a victim was wearing when the incident occurred for DNA purposes.”
Sometimes a victim is comforted by just being there and sitting with them after such a traumatic ordeal. “One of our most important functions is to assure a victim that he or she has done nothing wrong. A victim often feels guilty when in fact they are not. Self-confidence almost always suffers when an innocent person is sexually attacked.”
The organization has recently been triple certified, which means that in addition to sexual assault, they are also certified in domestic violence and human trafficking, “which has become a big issue in the San Jacinto Valley and is rapidly growing in major proportions,” said Leal.
Thanks to CASA, people are becoming more aware of just how widespread human trafficking is in this area. According to Liz Cervantes, head of human trafficking outreach, “human trafficking is running wild here. Much is operated by cartels with military training, and Florida Avenue is the main strip for forced prostitution in Hemet.”
Most people think that prostitution is free will on the part of the young girls, or boys, on the streets. Not true, says Cervantes.
“A pimp from the organization keeps an eye on them, so they are afraid not to perform as instructed for fear of harm to themselves or worse, to their families.”
And after a year on the streets of Hemet, she sees no decrease in human trafficking and says local police are of little help because local law enforcement is confronted with cartel personnel trained in guerilla warfare.
“It is growing all the time,” she said. “When we go to law enforcement they shake it off, like it isn’t their problem.”
She states that her approach to human trafficking is different. “We have girls and women who are on the streets every day observing and talking to these victims. I don’t look for girls with book learning; I want girls with street smarts to be part of my people.”
In February of this year, CASA was awarded $1 million to open up a transitional housing shelter for victims of human trafficking here in the valley. For obvious reasons she could not reveal the location. However, I was advised that in one recent month, 27 victims were given shelter in the area.