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This Survivor Turns Her Traumatic Event Into Her Life's Work For Other Survivors

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Ilse Knecht is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation. Her work for the survivors of sexual abuse is outstanding, she talks to us about her life’s mission.

Photo courtesy of Ilse Knecht (pictured far right) with Mariska Hargitay and the Joyful Heart staff at the premiere of I AM EVIDENCE

With all the recent headlines about Justice Kavanaugh, taking his seat in the highest court of the land, and the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, women need to know there is a support team ready to help them. The Joyful Heart Foundation wants you to know – “WE BELIEVE YOU.”

Mariska Hargitay has recently launched into the 20th season portraying Detective Olivia Benson, on LAW & ORDER SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, a role she prepared for by spending time at a rape crisis center. We couldn’t think of a better time to highlight the Joyful Heart Foundation, which was born from Mariska’s work portraying a fictional TV character. It was such an honor to talk in depth to Ilse Knecht, the foundations Director of Policy and Advocacy.

(L-R) Ice T, Philip Winchester, Mariska Hargitay, Kelli Giddish and Peter Scanavino

Ilse Knecht and Mariska Hargitay

What ignited your passion to be involved with social justice issues?

Ilse: “As well as being a homicide survivor myself, at 22, I worked at an abortion clinic, and someone I worked with was abducted and murdered, by two serial offenders. I was the last person to see her alive. Dealing with the prosecutors and police I got real experience and saw there were things that could have been handled much better. I thought then, “I’m going to get involved in victims’ issues.”

I got a job in DC working for a lobbying group, I was there for a year. I met someone who worked for the National Center for Victims of Crime and I ended up volunteering there for 15 years.

When I was there, I met a woman named Debbie Smith. Debbie told be about the delay in her case, she had uncovered that there were rape kits waiting for 5-10 years to be tested. I began reading more and more about it and then the story broke about New York having 17,000 kits that had never made it to the lab, for testing.

A light bulb just went on. It was so shocking, and I thought, we’ve got to fix this. It seemed like a problem that could be fixed.”

When did you begin motivational speaking and what inspired you?

Ilse: “I just had to do it. I started when I was young. It was during the first Gulf War, while I was in Toledo, working closely with a lot of anti-war activists. It was a very tight knit community.

We decided to organize a couple of buses to demonstrate and I took that on. Before I knew it, I was giving a speech downtown in front of a student movement. That was the beginning for me.”

Tell us about The Joyful Heart Foundation and how it helps the survivors of sexual assault?

Ilse: “Joyful Heart was founded by Mariska Hargitay, it was a result of her receiving thousands of letters, after she started playing Detective Benson on SVU. Hearing their stories, she wanted to do something being in her position and even more now as the show has evolved.

People say to her “I wish you were my detective”. Even today, on Twitter, its trending #WhyIDidntReport 65,000 people are saying why I didn’t report. One of Mariska’s early messages was #WeBelieveYou.

Originally, Mariska founded the Joyful Heart Foundation to help survivors find their joy in life again. It was about healing. The foundation has evolved since then, healing is still an important part. Public awareness is a very big part of what we do. Looking at ways we can transform how society responds to survivors. There are a lot of ways we do that, with the #NoMore campaign, a lot of messaging comes out through SVU and Twitter. Many of our survivors rely on Twitter, they retweet what Mariska shares, she has really changed their lives by her words and actions.

Recently our work has been about the rape kit backlog. We have been very strategic about it, going state by state passing legislation. This year we passed 15 bills that have already been signed and we are waiting for 3 more. Last year we had 19 bills.

Ilse speaking about rape kit backlogs at the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs annual conference

It was great being able to come and work for Mariska, on this mission, whose voice you can’t match in this arena. It is definitely my life’s work and I’m in the best place to do it!”

I Am Evidence really drives home about the lack of rape kit testing, please explain to us about the national program End The Backlog?

Ilse: “I Am Evidence has been an amazing tool for this campaign.

Going back when I was working with Debbie Smith - I helped pass the first Debbie Smith Act - that required crime labs to use a certain amount of federal funding on getting rape kits tested.

Ilse with Utah Rep. Angela Romero, champion of rape kit reform, at the National Conference of State Legislatures

We had the figures of the backlogs on rape kit testing from New York, LA and Detroit and these numbers were huge, 10,000 plus kits each. We were just starting to get the scope of the problem. The issue was not the crime labs, it was law enforcement and prosecutors. They had the discretion to decide whether, or not to send these kits to the labs and all too often they were not. This was based on a lot of different factors, which you see in I Am Evidence.

Dr Rebecca Campbell has really led the field in understanding trauma psychology and how survivors act when they are traumatized. It may take years for their memory of the event to come back, and everyone acts differently to trauma.

Mostly in the last five or six years of the field starting to understand why this happens. How to fix it, training law enforcement in trauma, how to approach survivors and passing legislation in making sure they send the kits.

I think I Am Evidence came at exactly the right time. It knocked it out of the park, showing the individual stories of how survivors were blamed and shamed and how the trauma impacted their lives. They were preventable crimes. We see it every day now. We get an email this kit has finally been tested, then you look at the offender and their rap sheet and you see the timeline. It’s horrifying when you think about the people’s lives that were altered, homicides that occurred, while this evidence sat on the shelf.”

Ilse Speaking at the State University of New York after screening I AM EVIDENCE

Why is it so important for survivors to share their stories?

Ilse: “It’s really important for survivors to share their stories to help change legislation, and to recognize they have so much more to offer to this movement. We have survivors work with us, they blog for us, they share their stories to help inspire others. Survivors say to me they don’t want to just come out and tell their stories, they want to be recognized for the skills they have, that they bring to this work also.”

What achievements are you most proud of?

Ilse: “That’s tough! Last year’s legislative campaign was amazing. But this year is even more amazing, because we got comprehensive reform passed in Hawaii, which was where we were originally founded. We have two bills pending in California and just to get legislators to take this on was such a heavy lift. Particularly, the mandatory testing bill.

Ilse with California State Senator Connie Leyva, sponsor of SB 1449, mandatory rape kit testing bill, and Natasha Alexenko, founder, Natasha's Justice Project, and Michelle Shaw, Alameda County, CA, DA Nancy O'Malley's office.

Ilse with Samantha Hanson, Engagement Coordinator for One Love Foundation, at the SUNY Spectrum Conference (Preventing and Responding to Violence. Against the LGBTQI+ Community)

When I was at the National Center for Victims of Crime, I was part of a small group who wrote a Sexual Assault Services Program. It was the first time there had been a federal funding stream for rape crisis centers. At the time there hadn’t been any funding, I was sitting with a group of friends in a cafe and we decided we should write something and so we did. We got it through and it got funded ever since. That has always been my baby and was literally having a baby at the time the bill hit the floor!”

What keeps you joyful in life and why?

Ilse: “It’s a choice. You can go the either way and I don’t want to go the other way. I have a son and he keeps me silly. One day I thought no one else is going to do it for me. I have loved this saying and use it often as an energizer: I woke up today for a reason. Let's go find out what it is!”

Which women inspire you and why?

Ilse: “I was very inspired by my mother, she always told me the golden rule, “treat others how you want them to treat you”. I remember when I was young, walking home with her and there was a homeless person, she stopped and gave them money and it bothered her all day. I got my empathy from her, she cared so much about social issues. She was there with the notepad answering the phone when I was organizing buses to DC and she would say “I got it.” She was always helping and inspiring me.”

Janis Kirsten Johansen Wood AKA “moms”

Ilse me in 2000 going to a rally at the Capitol to pass VAWA reauthorization

How can anyone help support The Joyful Heart Foundation?

Ilse: “Of course, donations are always welcome, you can follow us on social media, spread the message, retweet, write an op-ed, get involved. Get the media involved, volunteer or donate to your local rape crisis center. On an individual level, if someone tells you they have been raped believe them and ask “what can do to help you?”

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Please visit The Joyful Heart Foundation for more information about getting involved.

All photographs courtesy of Ilse Knecht

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