Safe space

Seacoast groups unite to prevent sexual assault and support survivors

It’s only been about four months since Haven, the new nonprofit that formed when A Safe Place and Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS) merged, moved into its offices at the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth. A few desks aren’t quiet set up yet and the walls still look freshly painted, but the offices already have a comforting, lived-in feel.

That may be because, separately, the two organizations have been providing services and support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence in and around the Seacoast for almost four decades. The two groups officially merged last July, but didn’t reveal their new name and logo until late October.

“The two agencies existed for over 35 years … and we always worked very closely together,” says Kathy Beebe, Haven’s executive director. “This was something a lot of us wanted to have happen for a long time.”

Beebe worked for SASS for some 26 years, most recently as the organization’s executive director for 13 years. In that time, Beebe has seen the conversations around domestic and sexual violence change, with more resources and support available to victims than ever before. However, according to Beebe, a recent study found that one in two women in New Hampshire are victims of either sexual assault or domestic violence, and that means there is much more work to be done.

Coming together

Before the merger, A Safe Place was dedicated to survivors of domestic violence, while SASS focused on victims of sexual assaults. Haven provides the same services that the two groups had provided separately for more than 35 years. Those services include running a 24-hour crisis hotline; accompanying victims to hospitals, police stations, courts, and child advocacy centers; facilitating support groups; providing emergency shelter for victims; offering education programs for children and adolescents; and holding community awareness presentations.

The reveal of Haven’s new name in October was one of the final steps in a merger that started a year and a half ago, Beebe says. At the time, SASS was in the midst of developing a long-term strategic plan, and A Safe Place was looking for a new director. After years of working together, Beebe says, the time seemed right to unite.

“Both agencies were doing great work, but they were just barely getting by,” Beebe says. There were already strong relationships to build on, but working apart presented challenges. There were always people who didn’t know about one or both of the organizations, or weren’t sure where to go to get the help they needed, Beebe says.

“Awareness is the first step … and that’s why we’re so invested in our school-based programs. … Kids need to know there’s help and support available.” 

— Kathy Beebe, executive director oHaven

“Hopefully, we’ll now be seen as the comprehensive organization for anyone who’s been impacted by domestic and sexual violence,” Beebe says. “All along the process, there’s been nothing but support for us going into this. We’ve heard from the community, and we’ve heard from survivors … who said they could’ve really benefited from having one place for support.”

Reaching out

In an average year, SASS provided services to about 3,000 people, Beebe says. It sounds like an impressive number, but when you consider the geographic region that Haven covers — all of Strafford County and most of Rockingham County, including roughly 48 communities with about 400,000 total people — the organization is likely reaching a small percentage of people in need of services.

When it comes to outreach, one of Haven’s primary focuses is educational programs at schools. The “Safe Kids Strong Teens” program provides body safety education for children in elementary school and workshops on media messages and consent for adolescents. The workshops reach about 10,000 students a year, Beebe says, and with the merger, she hopes Haven will eventually expand its programs.

“Awareness is the first step … and that’s why we’re so invested in our school-based programs. … Kids need to know there’s help and support available,” she says.

That early education makes an impact. Amy Culp is director of the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP) at the University of New Hampshire.

“I feel like we’ve had a lot more students who are coming to UNH who have an understanding already about what sexual assault is, or what dating violence is,” she says.

When students have that knowledge, it makes SHARPP’s outreach efforts to first-year students that much easier. New students take part in an online module about sexual assault before they come to UNH, and SHARPP educators speak during orientation and welcome sessions at the beginning of the fall semester. WildACTs, a “social justice programming troupe,” does presentations on sexual assault and other subjects, and Culp also talks to parents of first-year students during orientation. SHARPP also provides training for the university’s athletic teams, fraternities, and sororities. The university’s Preventions Innovations program, which is separate from SHARPP, has received national accolades for its bystander prevention education programs.

“We’re pretty much everywhere people invite us to be,” Culp says.

According to the university’s latest Clery Report, an annual report on crime statistics required by federal law, the number of reported rapes at UNH increased from 21 in 2012 to 23 in 2013 and 24 in 2014.

Culp believes those numbers are increasing because victims are slowly becoming more comfortable about coming forward and reporting assaults.

“Society has gotten better, though it’s still not great, about supporting survivors to come forward and share their stories,” Culp says. “Often, when I started, students might come in, see us once, and then leave, and we might not hear any more about their situation. Now, we often see students over the course of a semester, or over the course of a year.”

Changing conversations

There’s still a long way to go. Nearly one in four women and one in 20 men in New Hampshire have been sexually assaulted, and one-third of Granite State women have been physically abused by an intimate partner, according to the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Though Beebe says there’s been “tremendous progress in the response to domestic and sexual violence” during her 26 years in the field, there’s still one area where she believes progress has been lacking. “We continue to see in all forms of media a focus on blaming victims,” Beebe says.

There are more conversations than ever about domestic and sexual violence — there are high-profile national ad campaigns, and colleges and schools are making the subjects a public topic, rather than something to be whispered about secretly. But all too often, Beebe says, media coverage shifts the blame for rape and abuse onto victims.

“It continues to be a challenge, because that’s often the only information someone gets about these issues,” she says.

According to Beebe, now that the merger is complete, Haven hopes to grow. Combining the two organizations has saved on administrative and overhead costs, and as Haven looks ahead, Beebe says the focus is on increasing programs and services and reaching out to more people in the Seacoast.

“We need the entire community to work with us, because it’s an issue that impacts everybody,” she says.

Need help? Contact Haven’s confidential 24-hour hotline at 603-994-7233 or visit