As the director of Oasis, a residential refuge for abused girls in Guatemala, Dukes is determined to find justice for them — a home as well.
“TO SEE AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD TESTIFY in court about —” Corbey Dukes pauses for a moment, the long-distance call falling silent, “just horrors. It’s overwhelming at times.”
The girls at Oasis are brave. Braver than anyone should have to be. And Dukes, the director of the residential program for sexually abused girls in Guatemala, witnesses their bravery every day.
After graduating from Clemson in 1984, Walter Corbett “Corbey” Dukes III and his wife Janie Stevenson ’84 began careers in engineering and nutrition, respectively. The couple eventually settled on Pawleys Island. During this time, Dukes worked a corporate job, earned his MBA from Clemson and was very involved in his church, which often hosted mission trips to Oasis. Dukes got to know the residential program and staff through these mission trips, and on one significant trip, he was surprised to learn that the current director was leaving. In 2009, Dukes and his wife found themselves back in Guatemala, this time with Corbey as director of Oasis and Janie managing nutritional needs.
As soon as he arrived, Dukes began building up Oasis’ staff of social workers and psychologists; more were needed to treat the depth of the girls’ trauma. Over time, the home’s capacity grew from one part-time social worker and one part-time psychologist for 36 kids to five full-time social workers and four psychologists for around 100 kids. Working without a background in psychology — or a lick of Spanish — Dukes remembers this early period as being particularly difficult:
“I’m not a psychologist,” he says. “When I got here, I was just trying to figure out what was going on. The biggest challenge was understanding why the kids were acting the way they were acting. Basically, I taught myself child psychology to figure out what system we needed to have here and the funding infrastructure needed to put that system in place.”
Girls are sent to Oasis under court order for protection and rehabilitation after being removed from abusive environments. The healing process is long and hard as are the investigation and judicial proceedings that follow. According to Dukes, the rate for a successful prosecution of a sex crime is 6 percent in Guatemala. To improve the chances of a better outcome, Oasis staff work with Guatemalan prosecutors and provide resources for thorough investigations. Above all, the girls courageously testify against their abusers in court — efforts that yield a 70 percent successful prosecution rate.
“It took us a year pounding the doors, getting the district attorneys to pay any attention to us,” Dukes says. “Everybody was saying, ‘You’re wasting your time. Nothing will happen. It’ll re-traumatize the girls, and the bad guys will come and kill you for revenge.’ None of that was true.
“The girls are always better on the other end of the justice system. They get their voice back. We get threats, but we’re all still here. Just because something looks hard and is dangerous, it’s not an excuse not to do it.”
Beyond working with the justice system, Dukes and his team have also been meeting with government officials to advocate for adjustments within Guatemala’s foster/adoption system that will help bridge the age gap between young children who are being adopted and older children who still desperately need families. The girls at Oasis range in age from five to 17, but most of them are adolescents. Placing traumatized, adolescent girls into families (whether it’s their biological, foster or adopted family) is difficult, requiring serious rehabilitation and preparation often for both parties. Oasis oversees this whole process and sometimes struggles to find appropriate placements for girls due to limited options. But the struggle is worth it. And Dukes isn’t giving up:
“These kids deserve what any kid deserves: to be heard, to be loved and to have a family.”