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