Joyful Heart in the News

Mariska Hargitay Helps Survivors Heal On and Off 'SVU'

September 29th, 2010
Jacki Garfinkel

On Wednesday night's episode of the drama Law & Order: SVU (NBC, 9 p.m. ET), Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) help a rape victim played by guest star Jennifer Love Hewitt stand up to her attacker. The twist? The rapist was able to strike more than once due to a backlog in rape kits.

Ever since starting on SVU in 1999, Hargitay has been an advocate for rape victims, and even created the Joyful Heart Foundation, a community that helps empower victims of assault and abuse. The backlog issues on the new SVU episode, "Behave," are extremely close to Hargitay's heart, even leading her to launch a second initiative, End the Backlog. iVillage spoke exclusively with the 46-year-old actress (who's mom to 4-year-old son August with husband Peter Hermann) about her determination to help victims of abuse, the life lessons she's learned from playing Olivia Benson and why she and Meloni have their own "romantic comedy" going between takes.

Why did you start Joyful Heart Foundation? 

When I started playing Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit a decade ago, my eyes were opened to the the reality of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in this country. It wasn't just in the scripts for the show, but in the many emails I received from viewers disclosing their stories of abuse, many for the first time. 

I remember my breath going out of me when the first letter came, and I’ve gotten thousands like it since then. Three things stood out in the survivors’ stories I was reading. The first and most obvious was pain. 

The second theme in the letters was isolation. The word "alone" appeared again and again. Whether a survivor was writing from midtown Manhattan, or from a farm in Iowa, she was alone. She could have no one around her or everyone around her; it didn’t matter. 

And lastly, I read about courage. The act of reaching out for help and breaking the silence that imprisons so many survivors is an act of utmost courage. 

I obviously had my role to play on television, but I knew I wanted to play a role in healing survivors' pain, ending their isolation, and honoring their courage.

So I studied the subject, trained to become a crisis counselor, and started the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing healing, education and empowerment to survivors. 

The Joyful Heart Foundation works to foster a community that turns toward the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Such a community, empowered with knowledge, courage and compassion, can support survivors of this violence and engage in an open dialogue about how to collaboratively end the cycle of violence and abuse. 

How did you find out about the rape-kit backlog and what was the impetus to launching on the same day of the episode?  

I learned about the rape-kit backlog from advocates in the field, and from all the news we have seen in the past few years about backlogs discovered in police storage facilities across the country. The moment I heard about the problem, I knew that it was an issue that we needed to be involved in. Testing rape kits sends a message to victims that their kits matter. Not testing the kits sends the opposite message. 

There are many terrific organizations and individuals dedicated to ending the backlog. One way we thought we could contribute is by creating a comprehensive Web site that includes facts about rape kits and the backlog, stories from survivors whose kits were or are in a backlog, and examples for reforms implemented in other states. We hope that people who visit the site will join us to help end the backlog. The good news is that it is a problem that can be solved. We just need you to join us. 

Why is this such an important issue for you? 

For two reasons. First, rape-kit testing can take rapists off the streets. In New York City, which eliminated its backlog in 2003, they saw their arrest rate for rape rise from 40 percent to 70 percent. Right now, in this country, we have a national arrest rate for rape of just 24 percent. That means a rapist has a 76 percent chance of not being punished for their crime. Why wouldn't we do everything we can to arrest rapists? This includes testing every rape kit. 

Secondly, justice can help survivors heal. It takes a lot of courage to come forward. For those who do come forward and report their crime to the police, it is essential that the criminal justice system responds with compassion and a commitment to justice. A rape kit exam is a lengthy and, at times, invasive process. It can take 4-6 hours. It is important that we honor the commitment rape victims make to the criminal justice process by doing everything we can to make sure we test rape kits use the investigative leads to move the cases forward. We need to send victims the message that their cases matter.

Olivia Benson is tough -- have you learned any life lessons from playing her? 

I think she's taught me that compassion and toughness go well together, and that life is always a balancing act between the two. And that it would be nice to be able to yell "Cut!" in life when you feel like you're not getting it quite right. 

What would surprise people most about you? 

That I make sure I spend the better part of every day laughing. 

SVU deals with heavy themes. Would you ever want to do a romantic comedy? 

Absolutely! I think that's probably just the ticket to balance out my experience on SVU. But Chris (Meloni) and I try to keep it light between takes -- just to make it through the day -- so, in a way, we've already got our own romantic comedy going.

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