PEORIA — The Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria is seeing an uptick in people seeking help.

The therapy department at the center had a 60 percent increase in new referrals for abuse survivors in March, said Lauren Auer, the center’s clinical director.

“I definitely don’t think it’s because there’s been more sexual assaults,” she said. “I think it’s that more people are feeling safe to come in and get help for it, and realizing we are a resource for that, and that they can get it for free.”

A sexual assault occurs every 92 seconds in the U.S. One in six women and one in 33 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes said Carol Merna, chief executive officer for the center.

"So if you look at that just based in this area, that's a significant number of people who have had this experience," she said.

Today more people are choosing to get help. One reason may be the publicity campaign the center launched about three years ago to make people aware of the free services they offer. Another reason may be the fact that social norms are changing, said Merna. People are feeling more comfortable asking for help.

“I think there’s been a pretty significant cultural shift in the way people are becoming more open to discussing the trauma they’ve experienced,” she said.

New clients have been seeking help for both recent incidents and traumas that happened years ago. And it’s not just women.

“We actually see quite a few men,” said Auer. “Men are less likely to be affected by sexual assault, but they are also less likely to report. I would say most men we see here have not formally reported to the police.”

The center also sees children. No one is too young for counseling following an assault.

“For very young children we try to engage the caregiver,” said Auer. “Children will act out what’s been done to them, so we work with the parent on how to redirect those behaviors, how to keep them safe, working on emotional expression, that sort of thing. With children we do a lot of play therapy.”

Therapy helps victims process trauma in a healthy way.

“To be able to speak about something that’s happened to you is really the first step in just releasing that heaviness and shame that they’ve been holding on to,” said Auer. “If a client comes for something that happened a long time ago, if their response has been to hold it inside for a very long time… it will come out in other ways, nightmares, flashbacks or relational problems. It’s creeping into other areas of their life whether they realize it’s directly connected or not.”

The center has nine therapists who practice many different types of therapy. Children might play in a sand-filled tray, a way to act out events or relate feelings. They may also play with a dollhouse or special board games. Three therapists at the center are certified in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, one of the leading therapies for PTSD. And some clients respond well to Auer’s therapy dog.

“Sometimes the presence of an animal really gets people to open up,” she said. “There’s a lot of science that shows what having an animal present in the room can do for the body systems just to calm you. I’ve had kids talk to my dog rather than me because it’s more comfortable than making eye contact with an adult human.”

Therapists meet clients where they are, not only emotionally and cognitively, but physically as well. Therapy doesn’t always happen at the center, said Merna.

“We go out into schools to see kids, we’ll go out into the community agencies to see people. We meet them at a location that’s closer to their homes, that’s private and confidential just to make sure that a lack of transportation doesn’t stop them from getting those services,” said Merna.

Despite the recent uptick in referrals, the center has managed to keep wait times for counseling to a minimum.

“There was a short waitlist in April, but by mid-May I’d eliminated it,” said Auer.

Counseling is just too important to keep people waiting, said Merna.

“It’s always a goal of the board of directors that we do what we can to serve people in crisis,” she said.

Because the need is so great, the center’s board is talking about expanding, said Merna. With the demand for services increasing, they may hire more therapists which means they will need more office space. The board has been discussing the possibility of moving the playground to build a two-story addition, said Merna.

“When we did our strategic planning this year space was the number one issue for us,” she said. “We’ve already grown once in the capital campaign, and we might need to be growing again in the next year.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.