MID-CITY — As a patient arrived at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Gail Abarbanel, center founder and director, noted that it was the third patient of the day, and not even nightfall yet.
She has seen the number of patients fluctuate since she established the center in 1974, but said the Rape Treatment Center sees an average of three to four victims a day.
Abarbanel, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Santa Monica with her husband, was inspired to start the center by a female patient she encountered while working as a hospital social worker in the 1970s. The woman had been walking on the beach in Santa Monica one day when she was approached by a man and raped. At that time, there were no victim assistance programs.
“She couldn’t find anywhere to go for help,” Abarbanel said. “She ended up in our emergency room six days later, not as a rape victim but as someone who attempted suicide.”
Rape victims in the 1970s were made to feel ashamed, often ignored or hidden, Abarbanel said. From police to prosecutors to medical personnel, victims were often disbelieved or blamed for their experiences. She decided that rape victims needed a place where they could receive proper treatment in a safe environment.
“I decided that would be the last time there was no place to go,” Abarbanel said. “The Rape Treatment Center started with one victim.”
The center provides a full range of services, including emergency medical care and counseling. The goal is to provide care for traumatized patients in a safe, compassionate atmosphere, as opposed to a chaotic emergency room where victims might have to wait hours for treatment.
“The heart and soul of the Rape Treatment Center is the care we provide for victims,” Abarbanel said. During her 36 years at the center, Abarbanel has seen a diverse population of victims, ranging in age from four months old to 98 years old.
Abarbanel has worked not only to ensure comprehensive medical and psychological care for victims of sexual abuse around the clock, but also to enact social change. She said that over time, patterns begin to emerge from victims’ experiences and it becomes apparent what changes need to be made. She and other members of the center initiated legislation including removing resistance regulations from California rape laws and providing more rights for child victims.
Center staff partake in prevention programs in schools, teaching students across the Los Angeles area about sexual assault. Another arm of their education outreach involves professional training for police, judges, prosecutors, and anyone else who may come in contact with a rape victim.
“The most difficult challenge is that rape and child sexual assault are still very misunderstood crimes,” Abarbanel said. “Too many victims don’t get help because they don’t feel safe coming forward.”
The center and its programs have grown in response to patient needs. Many models created at the Rape Treatment Center are replicated across the country, such as integrating psychological and forensic services for victims as part of the emergency care, which is done in the center’s Verna Harrah Clinic. Another innovative element of the center is Stuart House, located nearby. Stuart House is a service for child sexual assault victims. It brings together police officers, prosecutors and child services under one roof, where they work as a team for each child. This eliminates the need for children to make visits to many different offices, recounting their experience each time.
With so many programs, Abarbanel has her hands full. On a typical day, she is responsible for overseeing rape treatment, preventative programs, professional training, and the fundraising that keeps the entire operation running. All services at the center are free to patients and provided for by grants and donations.
Abarbanel’s hard work was recently recognized by the Women’s Advisory Board of the City of West Hollywood. In celebration of Women’s History Month each March, the board honors two notable American women who have greatly contributed to the lives and empowerment of women. Past esteemed women include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rosa Parks and Gloria Steinem. This year, Abarbanel joins the ranks of these women as a 2010 honoree for her trailblazing work in the field of rape and sexual assault treatment.
Regardless of the accolades, Abarbanel remains focused on her center. Even though she sometimes receives threats from sexual offenders and therefore prefers to remain quiet about her private life, she carries on with her work.
“The center is a unique place that offers hope, healing and justice for victims,” Abarbanel said. “It’s like a beacon of light that’s on 24-hours a day.”