A Voice for Abuse Victims and Survivors

Way back in the winter of 1977, some women in Ithaca gathered in their living rooms to discuss a dire need for many in the community: how to provide assistance and support for women who were suffering violent abuse from spouses or domestic partners. An all-volunteer organization was born, called the Task Force for Battered Women, to create a network of homes willing to take in victims and their kids fleeing abusive relationships.

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Advocacy Center: Getting the word out

Four decades later, the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, as it is now called after a 2003 name change, runs a wide range of crisis and legal services and education programs with a paid staff of more than 25 specialists as well as dozens of trained volunteers. Financial support for the nonprofit organization comes from federal, state, and local governmental grants, charitable organizations such as the United Way, and corporate and private donations. “The agency has grown a lot over the years, but we remain committed to our roots and mission of providing compassionate, trauma-informed, survivor-focused services and education for all people in our community,” said Education Director Kristi Taylor.

The Advocacy Center provides shelter as well as advocacy, support, and education services to survivors of all ages, gender identities, and sexual orientations who have been impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse.

Since the early 1980s, the center has run a project to support victims of child sexual abuse, young people as well as adults who experienced abuse as children. Today, the center also provides confidential services, counseling, and advocacy for people experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In 2018, some 1,300 adult and youth survivors received support from the center’s services.

Taylor emphasized how victims and survivors have helped inspire and shape the center’s mission. “I’ve been in this work for nearly 11 years and have been honored to witness the bravery and strength of folks who have been able to reach out with their experiences,” she said. “I have learned so much about how far we still have to go.”

The Advocacy Center operates a 24-hour hotline at (607) 277-5000 for immediate help, receiving about 2,000 emergency and other calls per year. The center also lists an email address (info@theadvocacycenter.org) for responding to non-urgent queries. The center’s website (www.actompkins.org) provides an extensive listing of local emergency contacts, and resources with advice about what to do in the event of sexual assault, domestic or dating violence, and child sexual abuse. The advice section includes information on how parents and friends can best support victims and survivors.

Legal services is the latest addition to the Advocacy Center’s toolkit. The center’s Civil Legal Services Program is staffed by an attorney who provides free legal presentation for abuse victims working through civil proceedings. The new program was made possible last year by a five-year, $602,346 grant from New York State’s Office of Victim Services.

Center staff members also provide information about legal options in criminal court and family court cases, assist in obtaining protection orders or emergency custody, and advocate with Child Protective Services and the Family Assessment Response Team at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services.

The center offers numerous crisis services for sexual assault victims, filling a gap after the closure of the Center for Crime Victims and Sexual Assault, originally known as Ithaca Rape Crisis.

Besides the opportunity to speak by phone to a counselor 24/7 or find support in a safe house, the center provides direct medical and legal assistance. A center staffer can accompany sexual assault victims to Cayuga Medical Center for a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam, for example. The center also provides support for court appearances, and meetings with police and the district attorney’s office. The center offers assistance in filing for financial reimbursement of expenses through the state’s Office of Victims Services.

In addition to its crisis services, the center runs education and prevention programs and survivor support groups that reach thousands of Tompkins County residents every year. It works closely with area schools and colleges to promote better understanding about issues like domestic and sexual violence. The center provides customized trainings in domestic and sexual violence to health care providers, counselors and therapists, youth workers, school staff, college staff, police, and social service providers.

Supporting young adult and teen victims is an important focus of the Advocacy Center’s mission. In addition to its array of services for all sexual assault victims, the center provides assistance in dealing with campus investigators under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which requires schools to probe sexual assault allegations. The center’s Campus Educator and Adult Sexual Assault Advocate co-facilitate a weekly discussion group for survivors of abuse in the basement of Ithaca College’s Muller Chapel. “While there is no one solution, we know that seeking support through advocacy, therapy, and support groups can be a great way to connect with others and explore strategies for managing the impacts of the trauma,” Taylor said.

The center stresses that teens have a legal right to call the Advocacy Center and receive ongoing assistance without their parents or guardians knowing or granting permission. Given that many teens lack easy and affordable access to transportation, center personnel will arrange meetings at confidential locations convenient for teens in need.

In 2018, the center formed ACTion, a group of teens from all over Tompkins County to fight sexual and relationship violence. In November, the activist group hosted a benefit concert to raise funds and awareness called Consent Rocks! at Ithaca High School. “Youth in our community have been doing incredible work for years in raising awareness about the issues of abuse and supporting survivors,” Taylor said. “The work of ACTion and success of the Consent Rocks! concert highlights the power and importance of youth voices in bringing the cultural change needed to end domestic and sexual violence.”

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

 

Sexual Assault Survivors and Allies

Hope Gardner, a junior at Ithaca College, found herself spiraling downward after being sexually assaulted in 2018. She could hardly eat or sleep for days. But she soon turned her personal traumatic experience into a passionate cause: to change the conversation around sexual assault on the Ithaca College campus and in the wider Ithaca community.

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Sydney Muraoka, Hope Gardner, and Sobeida Rosa

Gardner, along with the support of colleagues and encouragement of friends, established IC Strike, a student organization that seeks justice for assault survivors and provides them with tangible support. The group is on a mission to empower assault victims and break the stigma around the issue.

“I was failed by the justice system and was feeling very helpless,” Gardner said in an interview about her inspiration for launching IC Strike. “I was frustrated by the lack of resources. I felt like I needed to find some sort of action that I could do in order to continue healing, so I approached a couple of friends with my idea for this organization and was immediately met with widespread support and interest from everyone I talked to.”

Gardner is president of IC Strike. Alongside Vice President Sydney Muraoka, and Treasurer Sobeida Rosa, she is building the organization by creating a network of survivors and allies. IC Strike carried out numerous programs and fundraisers in the fall 2019 semester. It sponsored a talk by Associate Professor Paula Ioanide on alternative forms of justice for survivors of assault. On December 11, it hosted an end of semester banquet to present funds and toiletries the group collected in support of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, an organization that aids sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

“My goal is that IC Strike will change the narrative on campus about sexual assault survivorship and allyship, helping survivors to regain a sense of agency,” Gardner explained. “My hope is that we will create a brave space where we can challenge the status quo, the stigma, and the belief that survivors need to be quiet about their experiences.”

Gardner believes that the space created by IC Strike can be helpful for survivors as they process the trauma of their assault.

“It can affect your self-image, your ability to be intimate, and how you live your day to day life,” she said. “I was barely able to eat or sleep for days. I found myself in a downward spiral due to PTSD, anxiety, depression. The effects of assault do not go away once the attack is over, and it’s vital that we offer support and resources for survivors, helping them however we can in adjusting to their new normal.”

For Muraoka, challenging the status quo includes reforming Ithaca College’s judicial system for handling sexual assault cases according to federal law. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 protects students from sexual harassment and violence and requires schools to handle assault allegations.

Gardner commented that many students believe the judicial system at IC is severely lacking and in turn re-traumatizing for victims while yielding few positive results. This can be extremely damaging to students’ physical and mental health, she said.

“I know people who have had to switch out of courses that are vital to their majors because the person who assaulted them was in that same class,” she said. “Not feeling safe on campus can have an incredibly negative affect on survivors’ mental and physical well-being, as well as academic performance.”

Gardner and Muraoka are hopeful. They have confidence in Linda Koenig, Ithaca College’s Title IX coordinator, who they believe goes “above and beyond” for students. They are closely watching the administration’s actions to hire a new assistant director for Judicial Affairs, who chairs Conduct Review Boards for cases of alleged sexual misconduct and serves as a member of the Title IX SHARE Advisory Committee and Policy, Procedure, and Practice Committee.

“We need someone who knows Title IX and has proper training in areas such as dealing with victims of trauma, including sexual assaults and domestic violence,” said Muraoka. “We hope to help see things improve for students that come forward in the future.

Campus rape and domestic violence cases steadily increased from 2016, according to the Ithaca College Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report released in October. Reported rape cases on campus rose from eight in 2016 and 11 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

A 2017 Campus Climate Research Study survey of students, faculty, and staff reported that 15 percent of respondents experienced “unwanted sexual conduct,” and 3 percent experienced “unwanted sexual contact” defined as rape, assault, or fondling.

Lara Hamburger, Campus Educator at the Advocacy Center, commended IC Strike’s work.

“Groups like IC Strike create space for survivors and allies to create meaningful change on their campus and beyond,” Hamburger said. “They create an environment where folks can speak out against violence while having a real impact on their community.”

She added: “While still a very new club at Ithaca College, IC Strike has already done great work. They’ve shown their solidarity to survivors in the community by organizing a toiletries drive for the Advocacy Center, and raised funds for our organization. Groups like these have great symbolic value as well. They serve to break the silence and isolation around these issues, and take a public stand so that their classmates and colleagues know that sexual violence won’t be tolerated on their campus.”

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

Ready? It’s Time for Ithaca’s 4th Annual Cupcake Contest!

Tasty cakes. Delicious frostings. Creative toppings. We can’t wait to see what cupcake delights our amateur bakers have in store for us again this year. The 4th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest will take place in the Commons on Saturday October 19.

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Contestants of all ages are invited and will be eligible for dozens of prizes including a Grand Prize valued at $250. (Open to amateur bakers only.)

Attention Teens and Pre-Teens: A $100 gift certificate redeemable at dozens of downtown Ithaca shops will be presented with this year’s Special Youth Award!

The contest is organized by The Sophie Fund, which was established in 2016 in memory of Cornell University art student Sophie Hack MacLeod to support mental health initiatives aiding young people.

The 4th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest is sponsored by GreenStar Natural Foods Market, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and Cayuga Medical Center.

To enter the cupcake contest, contestants are asked to bring their submissions to the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons from 10–11:30 a.m. on Saturday October 19. The winners will be announced and prizes awarded at a ceremony at the Pavilion later the same day at 3 p.m. There will be musical acts throughout the day!

Sophie’s passion for baking cupcakes inspired the launch of the contest in 2016. At the time of her death by suicide at age 23, while on a medical leave of absence from Cornell, Sophie was active in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene. According to her family, she hoped to open her own bakery after completing her Cornell degree.

In conjunction with the contest, The Sophie Fund is again organizing a “Cupcake Button” fundraising campaign, with monies donated this year to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, which fights sexual assault and domestic violence.

Click here for all the information on contest procedures and rules, and to download a registration form.