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.

advocacy-photo

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.

MuraokaGardnerRosa

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

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.

2015 Study: Sexual Assault at Cornell

A year ago, a comprehensive survey was released with disturbing figures for student sexual violence at Cornell University: 9.9 percent of participating undergraduate women and 3.9 percent of women graduate students reported being raped (“experiencing nonconsensual penetration”) through physical force or while incapacitated since entering college.

Of Cornell female seniors participating in the “campus climate” survey during the Spring 2015 semester, 31.6 percent—nearly 1 in 3—reported being victims of rape or sexual battery during their years in college; 12.8 percent said they had experienced non-consensual penetration through force or incapacitation.

cornellassault

With a new academic year getting started, the results in the report on the Cornell survey are important to keep in mind. Here’s what the late Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett had to say about the report:

“Student sexual assault is a serious national problem, occurring with unacceptable frequency at Cornell and on campuses across the country. The results also underscore there is still more work to be done to educate and to help protect our students. Even one instance of sexual assault on our campus is one too many.”

A total of 3,906 out of 20,547 Cornell students (19 percent) took part in the “campus climate” survey. Two-thirds (66.8 percent) of the reported incidents of “nonconsensual penetration” through force or incapacitation involving female victims occurred on the Cornell campus or affiliated property; 93.6 percent of the reported incidents on university property occurred in a dorm or a fraternity/sorority house.

The report on Cornell defined penetration as “when one person puts a penis, finger, or object inside someone else’s vagina or anus,” or “when someone’s mouth or tongue makes contact with someone else’s genitals.” The report defined physical force as “when someone was “holding you down with his or her body weight, pinning your arms, hitting or kicking you, or using or threatening to use a weapon against you.” The report defined incapacitation as a student being “unable to consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol.”

The report explained that tactics of force or incapacitation for nonconsensual penetration “generally meet legal definitions of rape”; while the same tactics for nonconsensual sexual touching “generally meet the legal definitions of sexual battery.”

In the Cornell study, 17.8 percent of undergraduate women and 6.7 percent of women graduate students reported experiencing nonconsensual “sexual touching” since entering college (“sexual touching” being defined as: “kissing; touching someone’s breast, chest, crotch, groin, or buttocks; or grabbing, groping or rubbing against the other in a sexual way, even if the touching is over the other’s clothes.”

The report cited alcohol as a factor. In 72.9 percent of the rape incidents, the male offender was drinking alcohol. The female rape victim was voluntarily drinking alcohol in 66.5 percent of incidents; in 6.5 percent, the victim suspected she was given alcohol or drugs without her consent.

The report cited serious physical and psychological consequences of the sexual violence. The report said that 11.3 percent of the female rape victims reported physical injuries, usually external bruises, cuts, scratches, or swelling, or internal vaginal or anal tearing. Emotional distress was much more prevalent. Victims in reported incidents involving penetration through physical force or incapacitation reported:

Difficulty concentrating on studies, assignments or exams (56 percent of victims raped through physical force; 39.8 percent of victims who were incapacitated)

Fearfulness or being concerned about safety (44.4 percent, 16.6 percent)

Loss of interest in daily activities, or feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (32.9 percent, 28.9 percent)

Nightmares or trouble sleeping (27.4 percent, 20.4 percent)

Feeling numb or detached (43.6 percent, 43.8 percent)

Cornell female students were reluctant to report rape and sexual battery. Nearly three-quarters of the rape and battery incidents were not reported to a campus “agency or organization.” Among penetrative acts, only 26.8 percent of the victims said that an incident involving physical force was reported; 16.2 percent said that a penetrative incident involving incapacitation was reported.

According to the Cornell survey results, a significant percentage of women said an incident was not reported because they did not think anything would be done about it (38.6 percent); because they felt embarrassed or ashamed (33.3 percent); or feared it would not be kept confidential (21 percent). The most-cited reason for non-reporting—by 75.8 percent—was because “I did not think it was serious enough to report.”

The report on Cornell was part of a survey conducted by the Rockville, Maryland research firm Westat for the Association of American Universities during the Spring 2015 semester at 27 institutions of higher learning across the country; 150,072 students participated in the survey. The study, “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” was released on September 21, 2015; the Cornell study of the same name was released on September 18, 2015.

Nationally, 27.2 percent of female seniors reported unwanted sexual contact through force or incapacitation since entering college; 13.5 percent said they had experienced nonconsensual penetration by one of these means.

The figure of 9.9 percent of Cornell female undergraduates who reported being raped was slightly lower than the national average of 10.8 percent; the figure of 3.9 percent of Cornell female graduate students was the same as the national average.

In the national survey results, the researchers found that freshmen female students were more vulnerable to sexual assault “because they are not as familiar with situations that may lead to an incident of sexual assault or misconduct.” Among current freshmen nationwide, 16.9 percent of females reported rape or sexual battery (6.6 percent reported being raped), compared to 14.8 for sophomores, 12.4 for juniors, and 11.1 for seniors. At Cornell, the percentages remained more constant: 14.6 percent for freshmen, 14.6 for sophomores, 11.2 for juniors, and 13.5 for seniors.

For more information: see Cornell’s SHARE website (Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education)

SHAREHelp-Poster-2lrqirw

 

LGBTQ Teenagers in Trouble

A crisis requiring urgent attention from school administrators, teachers, parents, and the community at large: lesbian, gay, and bisexual teenagers are experiencing severe levels of depression, bullying, and violence, according to an important new study released August 12 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 30 percent of LGB students reported attempting suicide in the past year, five times the rate of heterosexual students.

“The intensity of homophobic attitudes and acceptance of gay-related victimization, as well as the ongoing silence around adolescent sexuality, marginalizes a whole group of young people,” Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, told the New York Times. That marginalization, Miller added, “increases their vulnerability to exploitative and violent relationships.”

lgbtq study-photo

The DC Center for the LGBT Community summarized the findings of the study, entitled “Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9–12 — United States and Selected Sites, 2015”:

LGB students are significantly more likely to report:

—Being forced to have sex (18% LGB vs. 5% heterosexual)

—Sexual dating violence (23% LGB vs. 9% heterosexual)

—Physical dating violence (18% LGB vs. 8% heterosexual)

—Being bullied at school or online (at school: 34% LGB vs. 19% heterosexual; online: 28% LGB vs. 14% heterosexual)

LGB students at substantial risk for serious outcomes:

—More than 40% of LGB students seriously considered suicide and 29% reported attempting suicide in the past year.

—Sixty percent of LGB students reported having been so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing some usual activities.

—LGB students were up to 5 times more likely than other students to report using several illegal drugs.

—More than 1 in 10 LGB students have missed school during the past 30 days because of safety concerns.

The CDC study marks the first time that a nationwide survey of American high school students on health-related behaviors included sexual identities  data to be broken down by sexual categories.

The report concluded that schools have “a unique and important role to play” in helping reduce stigma and discrimination by creating and sustaining positive school environments through the following policies and practices:

—Encourage respect for all students and do not allow bullying, harassment, or violence against any student.

—Identify “safe spaces” (e.g., counselors’ offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations) where sexual minority students can get support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.

—Encourage student-led and student-organized school clubs (e.g., gay/straight alliances) that promote school connectedness and a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all students.

—Ensure that health classes and educational materials include information that is relevant to sexual minority students and use inclusive words or terms.

—Implement professional development opportunities and encourage all school staff to attend on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of sexual minority status.

—Make it easier for students to have access to community-based health care providers who have experience providing health services, including HIV/STD testing and counseling and social and psychological services, to sexual minority youth.

—Promote parent engagement through outreach efforts and educational programs that provide parents with the information and skills they need to help support sexual minority youth.