NAUGATUCK — On the TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Mariska Hargitay plays a tough-as-nails cop who puts rapists behind bars.
It was when she began receiving fan mail from actual victims of sexual assault that she formed a foundation to help them.
That caught the eye of the borough-based Jane Doe No More, and Donna Palomba, who founded the organization years after being raped.
“The content of the scripts and the work that she did to prepare for the role opened her eyes to the issues of sexual assault and child abuse,” Palomba said. “She started receiving mail, but it wasn’t your typical fan mail; it was from survivors often disclosing their stories for the first time.”
On Friday, the daughter of Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay will be honored by Jane Do No More with the 7th Annual Dr. Henry C. Lee Award.
Also receiving the award will be attorney James G. Clark and the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut he founded.
Palomba said Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation began in 2004 as a way to shed light on issues that often remain hidden.
“Their mission is to heal, educate and empower victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse — very much in line with the mission of Jane Doe No More,” she said.
“In particular, last year they’ve made tremendous inroads into eliminating the backlog of untested rape kits which were sitting on shelves,” she said. “That work has been extraordinary. That’s what really got us inspired to honor them this year with the award.”
Joyful Heart later grew into a national organization with locations in Los Angeles, New York and Honolulu.
In a prepared statement, Hargitay, who will not be present at the award ceremony, said she was “deeply touched” by receiving the Henry C. Lee Award and “proud to share in the commitment of Jane Doe No More to changing the way society responds to survivors of sexual assault.”
Palomba said the award is named after the famed criminologist because of a personal connection she has to Lee and his work.
In 1993, Palomba was raped in her Overlook neighborhood home, and claimed afterward the Waterbury Police Department improperly handled the case.
Frustrated, she sought Lee’s help.
“Dr. Lee has become a good friend. I actually reached out to him after my case was mishandled by the Waterbury police. I knew he was an expert forensic scientist,” Palomba said. “He actually re-sampled the DNA in my case.”
Years after her assault, a DNA sample provided by the suspect in an attempted sexual assault turned out to be a match for her attacker, she said.
Under the name “Jane Doe,” Palomba won a lawsuit against the Waterbury Police Department for botching the crime scene and accusing her of lying about the attack.
It wasn’t until almost 15 years later that she appeared on the NBC’s Dateline news program and said she was “Jane Doe” no more.
She later made that the name of the organization she founded to advocate for a change in how sexual assault victims are regarded by the public and police through awareness and education programs.
Jane Do No More’s advocacy led to the state removing the statute of limitations on those sexual assault cases in which there is DNA evidence.
“I was really after policy and procedure changes, so what happened in my case would not happen to other victims, to prevent re-victimization,” she said. “[Lee] told me at the top of the list should be that every victim needs to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Those ideals are also at the heart of the Wallingford-based Victim Rights Center.
“Victim Rights Center’s goal is that every survivor will have a lawyer to work with advocates, health professionals and law enforcement to rebuild their lives in safety,” Clark said. “Crime victims need trauma-informed legal help to deal with issues like orders of protection, compensation, housing, employment, education, child custody, and the complex and confusing criminal and civil court systems.”
Palomba called Clark’s work “nothing short of extraordinary” over the three decades he’s been fighting for victims of sexual violence.
“He has committed his life to the needs of victims of violent crime and he does it with remarkable compassion and understanding,” she said. “His dedication is a sincere reflection of the inspiration behind the Dr. Henry C. Lee Award.”
Presenting the awards will be Dr. William Petit, whose Petit Family Foundation supports Jane Doe No More, particularly through funding self-defense classes for women and girls.
Petit lost his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and the couple’s two daughters, Hayley, 17, and, Michaela, 11, in 2007 in a violent home invasion that left him severely beaten, and the lone survivor.
“I think once you’ve been exposed to it like Mariska has, and Dr. Petit through his unfortunate, horrific event, you realize more about the crimes of sexual violence,” Palomba said. “They remain the most misunderstood and under-reported crimes in our country … It’s a topic that’s been under the radar for too long.”
If you go:
The Jane Doe No More Dr. Henry C. Lee Award and Recognition Dinner will take place Friday at 6 p.m. at The Waterview in Monroe. Tickets are $125 per person and include open bar, cocktail reception, dinner and dessert. Tables of 10 may be reserved and event sponsors are being sought.
For tickets and information, visit janedoenomore.org.
For information about the Joyful Heart Foundation, visit joyfulheartfoundation.org.
For information about the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut, visit victimrightscenter.com.
For information about the Petit Family Foundation, visit petitfamilyfoundation.org.