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New interview room designed to empower survivors

CHARLOTTESVILLE (AP) Carefully chosen artwork, comfortable chairs, blankets and essential oils help ease harsh memories.

A new ‘soft interview room’ at the Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is designed to make a more comfortable place for victims to recall and discuss the traumatic events they’ve been through as prosecutors and police prepare criminal court cases.

The Charlottesville room is the most recent of 48 created and installed across the country by Project Beloved, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates, educates and collaborates with criminal justice officials to help victims, especially sexual assault survivors, tell their stories.

The room is the second in Virginia, joining the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. A third is being installed at Virginia Military Institute.

The room is part of the effort by a Texas mother whose daughter was killed by a serial rapist to bring hope to Charlottesville survivors of sexual assault and other crimes through the new interview room at Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania’s office.

“Our hope is by using this trauma-informed response, that we’re going to get better evidence so that we can make more arrests, that we can take more cases to trial, we can get more convictions and we can take rapists off the street,” said Tracy Matheson, president and founder of Project Beloved: The Molly Jane Mission.

Matheson founded Project Beloved following the brutal rape and strangulation of her 22-year-old daughter Molly Jane. Matheson discovered that other women had come forward about being assaulted by the rapist who murdered her daughter prior to her death, but had negative experiences when talking about what happened to them, discouraging some from pursuing justice.

The rooms provide a more comfortable place for survivors to talk to detectives and attorneys about their trauma. The rooms feature elements intended to make survivors feel more comfortable. The chairs swivel so that survivors can move around in them. There’s a variety of lighting fixtures, a basket of blankets, an essential oil diffuser, a table that can be wheeled around if someone needs a writing surface.

Even the artwork is intentional. Canvas wall hangings feature photographs taken by Megan Getrum, a woman who was murdered five days after Molly Jane was by the same predator.

“It’s just the perfect way to include Megan’s story in Project Beloved because we are intertwined,” Matheson said.

Pat O’Donnell, Victim/Witness Coordinator for the city of Charlottesville, reached out to Project Beloved to install the room. Project Beloved made over an old vacant office.

“This kind of helped to fuel our desire of ‘we can’t sit here and do nothing. We’ve got to find a way to take this horrific tragedy and help bring change,’” Matheson said. “I realized that there’s probably not a jurisdiction in the country that has a budget set aside to make over a space that is cold, stark and sterile, and so I said ‘I’ll make soft interview rooms.’”

Matheson and her organization’s mission is for there to be a world where survivors feel comfortable and safe as possible when talking about the worst day of their lives, in hopes it will bring justice and empower survivors.

This mission spoke to O’Donnell and other members of Victim/Witness services departments, which was already starting to work on using more trauma-informed practices in interviews.

“This is something that we as an office wanted to do. We started back in 2018 with no budget and no space. We lost a space once or twice, and we were trying to figure out a way to do it. And then it was last October that we found out about Project Beloved,” O’Donnell said.

Project Beloved uses donations from individuals, companies and organizations to fund the soft interview rooms. Currently, the organization creates one to two rooms a month, with ambitions to do more.

Platania said the room will help members of the office foster the healing journey of a survivor. He said sexual assault cases are some of the “toughest cases” he sees.

“It’s just so positive, inspirational and we just feel so lucky and fortunate to be the second site in Virginia and to have people take a personal tragedy and make something positive out of it,” he said. “It’s hard not to be emotional. I think of the impact and bravery and courage. We’ll think about (Matheson’s) daughter every single time.”

Matheson wants the tragedy of her daughter’s murder to inspire change across the country, in cities like Charlottesville.

“Everyone says ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through’ and I can’t say I wouldn’t say the same thing to someone, that I can’t imagine. But it is my reality,” Matheson said.

“And the only thing that I could figure out how to make it through was by doing this,” she said. “I would say probably it has saved my sanity to be able to have something like this to pour all of my mental energy and physical energy and take this horrific, unthinkable, unfathomable, incredibly awful thing and help it fuel this change that I hope to see come because of our efforts.”

-GINNY BIXBY, The Daily Progress

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