Gail Abarbanel was the Santa Monica hospital’s only social worker when a patient changed her outlook on rape treatment and prevention.
The patient had been walking on the beach when a stranger attacked and raped her multiple times. Six days later, she was admitted to the emergency room after attempting to commit suicide.
“This was in the 1970s,” said Abarbanel, a UCLA alumna. “She couldn’t find anywhere to go for help. We didn’t know about trauma or (post-traumatic stress disorder). Nobody talked about rape.”
This experience led Abarbanel to found what would become the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in 1974.
“I decided that would be the last time there would be nowhere to go,” she said.
Decades later, Abarbanel is still the director of the center, which is one of the most extensive rape treatment facilities in the nation. The UCLA Faculty Women’s Club honored Abarbanel Tuesday as the 2014 recipient of its Woman of Distinction Award, the same year the Rape Treatment Center celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Rochelle Caballero, the club’s president, said the group chose Abarbanel for the award not only because of the 24-hour care provided at the Rape Treatment Center, but also because of the educational process she instituted with police and medical health personnel in their treatment of survivors.
“(Abarbanel) has helped UCLA directly because the Rape Treatment Center is available to any students in need … but also indirectly, by helping elementary, middle and high school students form positive attitudes,” said Jo Knopoff, faculty center representative for the Faculty Women’s Club.
Abarbanel said that when she founded the Rape Treatment Center, there was a widespread perception that police might mistreat women who reported their rapes. She said this is why she has pushed for police to learn more about how to treat survivors of sexual assault.
“We decided to change tactics and fix the police department instead,” Abarbanel said. “That was the beginning of providing training for police officers.”
In 1998 and 1999, Abarbanel added two more facilities to the Rape Treatment Center: the Stuart House, which specializes in treating sexually abused children, and the Verna Harrah Sexual Assault Examination Clinic, a 24-hour emergency facility for survivors of rape. Both of these programs have become nationally recognized, according to the Faculty Women’s Club website.
“We were pioneers,” she said. “It was really hard to make it work in the beginning.”
Abarbanel said she thinks the Stuart House was a particularly innovative program of the Rape Treatment Center.
“Twenty-five years ago we began to see a lot more children (at the Rape Treatment Center),” Abarbanel said. “We began to hear the same story from every child about when they tried to get help.”
Before the Stuart House opened, some children who built up the courage to come forward about the abuse would have to visit five or six different agencies throughout the city and tell their experiences to a different set of counselors and investigators every time, Abarbanel said.
The Stuart House was the result of Abarbanel’s work to bring all of these services together into one child-friendly facility. The program now sees so many child survivors that the Rape Treatment Center is currently raising $18 million to double Stuart House’s capacity, according to the Rape Treatment Center website.
One of Abarbanel’s proudest moments occurred during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Stuart House, when Charlie Beck, who was once a Stuart House detective, told the assembled police officers about children he had met in his career who had been assaulted.
Abarbanel said she remembers Beck, who would go on to become chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, saying that police can’t always fix a child’s situation because the work goes beyond making an arrest. She added that Beck told her police work is about healing the souls of the victims.
Abarbanel said Beck’s statement brought tears to her eyes because she thought it showed how much attitudes toward victims of sexual assault have changed.
The Rape Treatment Center’s outreach programs in California schools reach thousands of students every year and address issues such as peer harassment and sexual assault, Abarbanel said.
“The truth is, you don’t fix this problem on a college campus,” Abarbanel said. “It really begins in elementary school. It’s all about helping kids develop a moral compass.”