The victims of Dr. Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Jerry Sandusky come from all walks of life. But they have one thing in common: Their stories were disregarded or disbelieved when they first came forward to report their assaults. Meanwhile, authorities turned a blind eye—and their predators found new victims.
But in Chester County, time’s up. “We wholeheartedly believe our victims,” says Christine Zaccarelli. “If someone comes in and says she’s been sexually assaulted, we believe her—or him. The conversation is not, ‘What were you wearing? How much did you have to drink?’ The conversation is, ‘How can we help?’”
Zaccarelli is the new CEO for the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County. An attorney with almost 25 years of experience advocating for the disenfranchised, she welcomes the long overdue spotlight being cast on sexual assault survivors. Those aren’t the only people CVC serves. The center also helps victims of domestic abuse, workplace harassment and human trafficking.
And that help comes in many forms. Though advice on the legal process is a big part of it, the center also has emergency food boxes for people who must leave abusive homes. It also provides hospital escorts for victims of physical violence and offers counseling for adults, children and families. It’s a holistic approach that focuses on the victim, not just the crime. “We’re dealing with people at very vulnerable times in their lives,” Zaccarelli says. “We work on getting them what they need for where they are in their process.”
CVC began in 1973 as the Rape Crisis Council—one of the first of its kind in the region to advocate for sexual assault victims, including children. By 1977, the center had expanded beyond rape to include all types of crimes. Under the guidance of co-founder and longtime executive director Peggy Gusz, CVC worked with law enforcement and a mosaic of nonprofit agencies to meet the needs of thousands of victims. Gusz became synonymous with CVC—so much so that, when she retired at the end of 2016, it took the board of directors almost a year to find her successor.
They believe Zaccarelli is the right woman for the job—and it’s not an easy job. “CVC’s staff inspires me,” she says. “They’re pushing up the rock, and I’m at the top of the hill trying to make sure they don’t lose any ground. I want to make sure they have the support they need.”
Zaccarelli’s long history of public service began at the Chester County’s district attorney’s office in 1994. She then went to Legal Aid of Southeastern PA, working as an attorney, then its pro bono director. There, she represented low-income residents and senior citizens, handling domestic violence, divorce, child custody, unemployment compensation and more. Zaccarelli tried her hand at private practice, but after three years she returned to Legal Aid. She was serving as president of the Chester County Bar Association, a volunteer position, when she heard about the CVC job.
Zaccarelli took CVC’s reigns in November 2017, just as the #MeToo movement and USA Gymnastics scandals were making headlines. Sexual assault is nothing new, but predators weren’t always treated with the universal scorn directed at Harvey Weinstein and Dr. Larry Nassar. Zaccarelli welcomes the empowerment movements sparked by the victims of those crimes. She’s seen similar positive changes in the way colleges handle reports of sexual assault, thanks in part to It’s On Us and other organizations. CVC recently started working to improve sexual assault awareness programs at Immaculata and Lincoln universities. Zaccarelli hopes to do the same with West Chester University and other colleges.
Addressing child abuse is another huge priority. CVC currently runs prevention programs for kids in grades K-12 throughout Chester County’s school district. Stewards of Children is a similar program. It’s targeted at adults, providing education about warning signs, reporting suspicions and prevention tactics. The program is offered online and in-person at events held throughout the region. “It’s such a massive problem that people sometimes wonder what difference their effort will make,” says Zaccarelli. “But there are things we can do. If we educate enough people, we can make a difference together.”
Zaccarelli believes that about abuse and a wide array of other crimes. “We need a culture change,” she says. “More laws aren’t going to do it, because they aren’t doing it now. We have plenty of laws in place. It’s about how we treat our neighbors and advocate as a community for one another. It’s about how we raise our children so they know, on the inside, that some behaviors are not OK.”