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

 

Get a Cupcake Button!

Student organizations are fanning out across Ithaca to support this year’s “Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign” organized by The Sophie Fund, which will hand over all donations to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County.

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Students will be tabling at GreenStar Natural Foods Market, on college campuses, and other locations around town, collecting donations in exchange for a colorful button featuring a painting of a cupcake. The campaign is held in conjunction with the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest, which will be held in the Ithaca Commons on Saturday, October 19.

“We are honored to designate the Advocacy Center as the recipient for this year’s Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign,” said Scott MacLeod, a co-founder of The Sophie Fund. “The Advocacy Center does incredibly valuable work in our community, fighting sexual assault and domestic violence and providing essential support to victims of abuse.”

Last year’s cupcake button campaign raised $1,367.50, which was given to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County.

Student groups participating in the 2019 campaign include:

—Active Minds at Ithaca College

—Active Minds at Ithaca High School

—Cornell University student organizations: Cornell Minds Matter; Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter; Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity; PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health); and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis senior honor society

Image caption: Detail from Evolution (2009), a painting by Sophie Hack MacLeod

Know Her Name

NPR calls Know My Name, published September 23, a “devastating, immersive memoir” of a sexual assault and its aftermath—about a crime that took place on the campus of Stanford University after a fraternity party in 2015.

Chanel Miller, after accompanying her sister to the party, was sexually assaulted behind a dumpster by Brock Turner, a member of the Stanford swim team. Two Swedish grad students came on the scene and accosted the assailant. In a trial that received national attention, Turner was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault and faced up to 14 years in prison. He served only three months of a six-month sentence in a county jail.

At Turner’s trial, Miller was known only as Emily Doe, although her eloquent “victim impact statement” to the court went viral—it was a pre-#MeToo movement act that dramatically highlighted the horror of sexual assault.

Miller says that #MeToo helped her decide to end her anonymity. “Before, I wanted the assault to not be a part of my life, and that was the goal,” she told the New York Times. “Now it’s accepting that it will always be a part of my life, and I just figure out where it lives inside my life.”

Miller says she has no problem with the word “victim,” but in writing about her full life in Know My Name she refuses to let it define her. As NPR’s review of her book notes, “If you want to know her name, you also need to know that her Chinese grandfather pronounces it like xiao niao — ‘little bird.’ That she does stand-up comedy, that she likes to cook, that she has a little sister and that on the night she was attacked, her dad made her quinoa and she made fun of the way he pronounced it. In other words, that she is a full person, a loved person, a named person.”

Miller’s bravery is all the more striking put up against the powerful institutions she confronted that minimize the trauma of rape, whether they be a legal system that makes it almost impossible for victims to get justice, or a university that strives to sweep sexual assault under the rug.

In its review, NPR says that “Stanford emerges as a sharp example of institutional cowardice: its failure to meaningfully follow up after it became clear she was not a student, and an offer of money for therapy on the condition that she not sue the school.”

Stanford did create a garden near the place where Miller was attacked, but negotiations about a possible plaque quoting lines from her victim impact statement went nowhere.

“I finally understood I was visible not as a person, but a legal threat, a grave liability,” Miller writes.

“I encourage you to sit in that garden, but when you do, close your eyes and I’ll tell you about the real garden, the sacred place. Ninety feet away from where you sit is a spot, where Brock’s knees hit the dirt, where the Swedes tackled him to the ground, yelling, What the f–k are you doing? Do you think this is okay? Put their words on a plaque. Mark that spot, because in my mind I’ve erected a monument. The place to be remembered is not where I was assaulted, but where he fell, where I was saved, where two men declared stop, no more, not here, not now, not ever.”

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Art Therapy

Alex sits across from her therapist, tapping her foot anxiously on the floor, not speaking. Her therapist looks empathetically at her, and asks if she could possibly describe her feelings at the moment. Alex keeps her eyes on the floor, and shifts her position uncomfortably. The therapist wonders if she can recount her experience reconnecting with home friends with whom she shared a traumatic middle school experience. Finally, Alex looks up and begins to tell her story.

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Cast of alex getting better

Alex is the main character of alex getting better, a play written by 21-year-old Audrey Lang, a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College. The play was performed last fall in The Dillingham Center, home of Ithaca College’s theater program. Throughout the play, Alex, a college student, begins to work through and come to terms with being a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault in middle school. She had not thought about this traumatic episode in her life for a long while. She chose to bury the memory of a boy she had once been friends with and who had touched her and her friends in a way that was unwanted and inappropriate.

Lang portrays the diverse approaches that victims of sexual assault can take toward healing. Some of Alex’s friends had repressed the memories and remained friends with the assailant; others had forgiven, and moved on. Throughout the play, the feelings of shame, discomfort, and paranoia are visceral and perturbing as we watch Alex striving to work through her fears, accept the trauma, and learn to let go.

In the Fall 2018 semester, Lang wrote a 10-minute play for a theater class, which served as the backbone for alex getting better. She based the story loosely on trauma she had experienced in her own life, while asserting creative control in the play when necessary. Lang found the content to be relevant, informative, and universal, as she has known many women and girls who have dealt with similar forms of assault.

Because the play dealt with intimate, triggering, and vulnerable content, Lang made sure that she and the cast and crew members felt safe to voice their own personal stories during the time they were delving into Alex’s journey of recovery. “I chose to work with all females,” said Lang. “There was an all-female cast as well as an all-female rehearsal room. These events are so deeply related to things women and girls are dealing with. But, I wanted the play to be seen by people of all ages and genders.”

This performance not only gave Lang a platform to voice a traumatic event that happened to her depicted through her play, but it also gave the cast members a chance to empathize and vocalize similar occurrences that happened in their lives. This presents significant benefits of theater; the community and support that the participants in the play receive, as well as the chance for the playwright themselves to share and perform experiences for an audience to empathize with.

Lang has been a writer for as long as she can remember. In 2016, prior to alex getting better, Lang wrote another play about issues young women face, Dear Anna, which was performed with MCC Youth Company’s FreshPlay Festival and with the Ithaca Theater Collective. “I always loved writing,” said Lang, “but I was always mostly interested in dialogue and human interactions. Theater can bring life to stories in a way that feels more real because you are actually seeing the bodies.”

Rather than solely working through her struggles and experiences on her own, Lang and many other playwrights who create plays about mental illness or sexual assault work through their pain with a medium that enables others to be fully present with them when they are most afraid and vulnerable. This advocacy work is personal and intimate but the themes and issues addressed are universal. Lang chooses to write her plays about marginalized groups to give these people a platform to share their stories. “Typically, my plays are about women,” she said. “Especially queer women. I try to show them in places of strength and complication.”

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Audrey Lang

In theater, the audience can become engrossed with the story in a way that can indulge most of their senses, while also having a space where one is allowed to become emotional and vulnerable. “Theater should be educational and entertaining,” said Carin Etsy, an Ithaca College senior who directed alex getting better and is also a playwright who has written autobiographical pieces about sexual assault. “It forces you to be more engaged because, unlike watching a movie or reading a book, you can’t just leave. Theater is a continuous act; you have to sit there and be faced with another’s experiences and emotions.”

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry. 

Introducing the ACTion Faction!

ACTion is a group of like-minded teens from all over Tompkins County that will work together to fight sexual and relationship violence. They will collaborate to educate and enlighten their peers and the rest of the community so that they can help to keep themselves and others safe.

ACTion announcement

The ultimate goal of ACTion is to make the world a safer and more aware place. If teens are aware of the signs of relationship violence, then they will be able to recognize those signs to help themselves and hopefully others. ACTion will strive to make the teenage community in Tompkins County increasingly conscious about sexual and relationship violence and what they can do to help combat it.

Additionally, ACTion will have ambassadors to help spread the word all across Tompkins County: in their schools, on sports teams, in clubs they are involved in, etc. Members of ACTion will help with events that the Advocacy Center plans, and have the opportunity to plan, or collaborate to plan, events of their own. They will be offered the chance to work with others on projects they come up with on their own, as well as work independently on projects.

ACTion will bring teens together to work toward what they believe in. It will not only be an opportunity to inspire change in the community, but a chance to meet like-minded people and find your safe place. ACTion will give teens a place to be heard, and an opportunity to have their voices amplified. ACTion will make Tompkins County a safer, more aware place.

Our first meeting is taking place on Wednesday, September 12 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Just Be Cause Center (1013 West State Street, Ithaca). To learn more and sign up, fill out this form.

—By Dani Copeland

Dani Copeland is a sophomore at Ithaca High School. She volunteered at the Advocacy Center during the summer of 2018 to help turn the vision of ACTion into a reality. 

This article is republished from The Advocacy Center by kind permission.