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Joyful Heart Foundation was established in 2004 with the intention of helping survivors heal and reclaim their lives. Today, our mission is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever. We deliver our mission through three program areas: Healing, Education and Advocacy.
It wasn’t long after Mariska Hargitay began her role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that she began to receive letters from survivors, each of them with their own unique story, but all of them telling of the immense weight of pain, shame and isolation. In response, she created Joyful Heart. Since then, we have sought to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives—not as a first response to trauma, but as a next response to address the ways trauma continues to live on in the mind, body and spirit long after the immediate crisis has passed.
Over the years, we have served survivors from across our hubs of services though our healing programs. These programs are designed to address trauma through a holistic approach, addressing the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual effects of survivors’ experiences. To that end, program participants engage in modalities like creative arts therapy, guided writing, body work, yoga, meditation, music, dance, movement, play and mindfulness—all in the nurturing environment of community. By increasing understanding of the impact of trauma in these ways, as well as the use of trauma-informed wellness models, we effectively elevate the goal of healing from surviving to thriving and reclaiming joy.
“ I was quite cold and hard around the heart because it was too painful to be open… JHF really helped me open my heart again.”
- Retreat Participant
We also know that the professionals who care for survivors also experience their own kind of trauma, often referred to as vicarious trauma. One study, for example, found that 70 percent of domestic violence advocates met the criteria for clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. As well, we know that many are drawn to healing work because they are survivors of violence or abuse themselves. But to care for others and to provide the best response possible to those we serve, we must take care of ourselves first.
To date, we have served thousands of healers from hundreds of organizations across the country through our Heal the Healers programs. We also work to institute changes to the way we operate at the individual, organizational and systemic levels to ensure the sustainability of the movement to end violence—and of those who are working toward that end every day.
As we embarked on the ambitious work of identifying paths to healing for survivors, it became more and more apparent that the community survivors were met with mattered, that the response—from law enforcement, from the criminal justice system, from service providers, from our society—matters. It matters to help survivors fully heal and to see justice served in their case. It matters to foster a community that doesn’t blame survivors for what happened to them, but rather, one that meets them with compassion. It matters to create a society that doesn’t tolerate these crimes, to teach our children to respect and value one another. It matters so that future generations—instead of having to start a conversation in their communities—can join one that’s already going on.
Our Education programs and Advocacy programs both emerged to change this response—one through large-scale public awareness initiatives to change societal attitudes about these crimes, and the other, to engage in activism and advocacy to change the laws and systems.
So much of the reason survivors carry the weight of these crimes alone is because we as a society don’t talk about them. And the perpetrators of these crimes rely on this silence—they depend on us to look the other way. If we talked about sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse more—and placed the blame on the perpetrators where it belongs—it’s likely that more survivors would come forward and that we, collectively, would meet them with the support and resources to help them heal more fully. We would see an end to tolerance of and silence around these crimes. To meet these goals, our Education programs engage the public and turn up the volume on the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse while also seeking to change attitudes that all-too-often blame victims.
Our education initiatives include Reunion, Joyful Heart’s print and digital magazine, our Engaging Men program, the One Strong ‘Ohana campaign to prevent child abuse and neglect in Hawai‘i, and the NO MORE PSA campaign featuring more than 75 celebrities, athletes and public figures calling for an end to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Additionally, Joyful Heart works to engage both the entertainment industry and media on these issues. Studies have shown that television and film can be powerful tools for education and social norms change. We seek opportunities to inform script development so programming is infused with accurate portrayals of these crimes, their effects and the paths many survivors take to heal. We have also built and maintained a strong community of supporters through our social media that allows our followers to stay connected with us and one another and to break isolation.
"Thank you so much for sending our agency copies of your publication. It was so inspiring... Sometimes we feel that our own little rural area is so far behind that we get overwhelmed. Thanks for inspiring us to be positive and [know] that we are not alone."
- CAC Counselor, Idaho Falls
Part of the response that survivors are met with is that of the criminal justice system. It includes the response from law enforcement, the laws that decide their response and the resources that are dedicated to training and response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and the legal system that defines and tries these crimes.
In many cases, this response is woefully inadequate. For example. every two minutes, someone in the United Sates is sexually assaulted. But at only 36 percent, rape and sexual assault is the most underreported of all serious violent crimes. Rape has the lowest arrest rate of any violent crime in the United States, which is at a historic low of 24 percent, and even fewer perpetrators are prosecuted. Taking into account all those crimes that are not reported, it is estimated that fewer than 6 percent of rapists ever spend a day in jail.
While it’s estimated that 1 in 3 women are survivors of sexual violence, the vast majority do not report their crime and engage with the criminal justice system. Perhaps if they do, they’ll be met with questions—“what were you wearing?” “are you sure it wasn’t consensual?” “why were you alone?” “has something like this ever happened to you before?”—that belittle or blame. Or perhaps they’ll go through the process of reporting their rape, undergoing an invasive rape kit examination, only to hear years later that their rape kit was put on a shelf in an evidence room and forgotten.
Through our Advocacy work, we seek to improve the criminal justice and community responses to violence and abuse through reforms to laws and policies. We work to bring more compassion and less judgment for survivors and to enhance their access to justice, if that's what they choose.
The focus of our Advocacy work is to end the backlog of untested rape kits. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of untested kits just sitting on shelves in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the United States, each one a lost opportunity for healing and justice for a survivor.
When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown perpetrator, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a survivor's account of the attack, connect evidence from individual crime scenes to serial rapists and exonerate innocent suspects. It also sends the message that we take rape seriously and that perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes. Not testing kits sends the opposite message.
We partner with jurisdictions nationwide to secure the funding necessary to end their backlogs and pursue investigative leads, and to develop and implement a plan for testing. Through ENDTHEBACKLOG.org, the only website wholly dedicated to ending the rape kit backlog, we shed light on the powerful results of testing rape kit evidence and draw attention to the political and financial changes necessary to achieve comprehensive rape kit reform.
Other policy initiatives include developing best practices for how to notify survivors of the status of their rape kits and their cases—a process called victim notification—as well as broader DNA reform to ensure the use of DNA technology to its fullest and fairest potential. We advocate for legislation at every level of government that will bring healing and justice to survivors. We supported local policy improvements around funding for domestic violence shelters and other critical reforms that have been championed by our partners.
"Finally, my nightmares have stopped almost altogether. I have a sense of security that I haven’t felt in over a decade. My home is my own. My family is safe.”
- Rape survivor, speaking about the results of her rape kit that was tested after 13 years
An Integrated Portfolio
Our programs are each unique parts of a whole. Our work to end the backlog is supported and affirmed as we educate the public about this issue. Our victim notification recommendations are strengthened by hearing from survivors about their experiences and providing support to them through their healing journeys. We are only able to publish a Reunion, a magazine about survivors’ experiences and self-care because we have access to the most comprehensive, clinically sound content rooted in our healing philosophy. This integrated portfolio of work makes it possible to approach the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in a comprehensive, holistic way.
Because all of our work is grounded in evidence-informed methods and in being responsive to our community, we value the gift of feedback—both formal and informal—to guide our work. Over the years, we have touched thousands of people directly through our healing efforts. We've helped to pass legislation from Hawai‘i to New York to Texas. We've reached millions more through our awareness campaigns, website and online community. And we have heard so much from program participants about the impact of our work.
Through all this work we seek to expand, enhance and support existing program and services of our partner organizations. Our intention is not to duplicate what is already being done, but to support and affirm existing programs. Learn more about our approach .