Two Years After Statewide Cuts, University of Iowa Victim Services Remains Strained

by Emily Weaver

IOWA CITY, IOWA—In early 2017, Iowa state lawmakers cut 26 percent of the funding for victim services of sexual and domestic abuse. Three of these services are the Iowa Sexual Abuse Hotline, the statewide chatline, and Transformative Healing.

According to University of Iowa statistics, the budget cuts reduced services to students on a campus where 60 percent of women say they were sexually harassed by other students, and 44 percent of men reported sexual harassment. 

Since 1999, the Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RAP) has operated the Iowa Sexual Abuse Hotline. Embedded in the Division of Student Life at the University of Iowa, RVAP originally began as a service Women’s Resource and Action Center volunteers offered in 1973. 46 years later, they remain a proud member of the University of Iowa, focused on creating a world free of sexual violence.

Due to the statewide cuts, RVAP had to eliminate half of their part-time and full-time staff. Their budget of $1.4 million was diminished by $400,000 within the 2017 fiscal year alone.

While those working to eliminate sexual violence question why victim services such as RVAP are the first to go when governments have to make statewide cuts, RVAP Executive Director Adam Robinson believes gender-based violence is ignored and minimized in many places throughout society.

“We all need to hold one another accountable for the way in which we ourselves work to prevent sexual violence from occurring in our communities. There is no reason that those that are amongst the most vulnerable among us are continually ignored and harmed,” Robinson said.

In 2015, RVAP’s counseling and advocacy services helped 565 people, leading to an 84 percent increase in total services. In addition to these statistics, the Iowa Sexual Abuse Hotline answered 1,368 calls, which was a 250 percent increase from the previous year.

UI student Rebecca Peterson believes that having an anonymous resources could give voices to individuals who may not have one elsewhere: “every story deserves to be heard and without these services, I think these types of stories become more and more suppressed.”

Reduced Services for Marginalized Communities

RVAP was well-respected in the state of Iowa because of its large scope of services. However, for newer state programs, their numbers do not command the same respect when lawmakers consider statewide cuts. 

“I think when faced with such a large cut, it can be tempting to cut the services that are least established and have lower numbers of folks served. Both Transformative Healing and IowaARCH have only been around for five years. I would also note that doing so disproportionately impacts marginalized folks,” LGBTQIA Services Coordinator Kimberly Anderson-Reed said.

Many of the services are located on or near the University of Iowa campus. For those seeking anonymity in such situations, having different service options are necessary. For students that may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or uncomfortable, these places are critical in the healing process.

“I remember when my friend was in a sexual abuse situation and how she did not feel comfortable talking to me about it. I think it is very helpful for services like RVAP to exist so those who do feel uncomfortable and want to stay anonymous can seek help,” University of Iowa student Payton Long said.

In addition to the ISAH, the Iowa statewide chatline, IowaARCH, and Transformative Healing suffered budget cuts. Hosted by Monsoon Asians and Pacific Islanders in Solidarity, the statewide chat line provided an online chat service for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence and sex trafficking. In 2017, they saw a 40 percent increase in usage from the year prior.

Transformative Healing was created as a Culturally Specific Program established to end sexual violence in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual (LGBTQIA) community and other sexually diverse communities.

Like other marginalized groups, violence between non-heteronormative couples differ. According to the Center for American Progress, LGBTQIA victims often feel reluctant reporting to law enforcement because they do not want to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity and fear their relationship will be viewed as “dysfunctional.”

The Center for American Progress also notes that authorities often feel uncomfortable or have a lack of knowledge in how to handle these situations. That dynamic makes culturally specific programs vitally important because they protect LGBTQIA victims and provide a real opportunity for them to be heard.

Anderson-Reed said that although Transformative Healing was still able to maintain some capacity, much of the work done thus far has been to minimize harm and resources for survivors.

While it may seem like cutting victim programs is an easy target because there are so many of them, Robinson argues that lawmakers should take the opposite view. Placing all types of assault under the same umbrella is misguided, he said. 

Robinson stated that it is critical for victims and survivors of sexual violence to have inclusive access to support and that having an opportunity to access free, confidential support from a trained helper who understands the dynamics of sexual violence. 

“Research shows that the needs of victims/survivors of sexual violence go underserved when they are provided alongside a variety of other services.  We need to continue to center holistic, inclusive support services to all who have been impacted by sexual violence,” said Robinson.

Culturally specific services in general are critical to survivors that are historically and currently underserved such as services for LGBTQIA, people of color, immigrants, and the deaf community. Anderson-Reed said that the state of Iowa is a stand-out in that it has seven culturally specific organizations that serve survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Their purpose is to serve a specific population everyday by direct services, relationship building, and social change.

Iowa has confidential and free advocacy services in all 99 counties and in many hospitals. They are the first responders to any survivor that comes in for a sexual assault exam to provide support and answer questions.

There are six other culturally specific organizations that combat sexual violence in the state of Iowa besides Transformative Healing: Monsoon serving Asian and Pacific Islanders; Nisaa serving African immigrants; LUNA serving LatinX folks; Amani serving African American people; R.I.S.E. serving the Meskwaki Nation; Deaf Iowans Against Abuse serving the deaf and hard of hearing community. Anderson-Reed said that maintaining these services requires continued funding as well as support from community.

Statewide cuts impact many

The state’s Crime Victim Assistance Division oversees such services and cut grant awards by almost $3 million dollars. In an email with Little Village Magazine, Janelle Melohn, director of the Crime Victim Assistance Division, stated that her team worked endlessly to avoid causing harm for the victims.   

According to Little Village Magazine, Melohn and her staff chose to defund “items from program budgets that wouldn’t affect staff or services,” which was exactly the opposite of what happened to RVAP and Transformative Healing.

RVAP’s 1.4 million budget was cut by $400,000 in the 2017 fiscal year. Transformative Healing only retained $20,000 from their $300,000 budget which resulted in no funding for office coverage or direct services to work with survivors.

The cuts occurred despite convincing evidence that the services were needed and successful. According to state data, services used by domestic abuse survivors increased by 45 percent and services used by sexual assault survivors increased by 126 percent during from 2013 to 2016. Although it has been two years since statewide cuts were put into effect, victim services are still trying to bounce back from the challenge that was presented to them.  

“I think it’s important to note, we’re still impacted by this and feeling the effects of the funding cut in the state. Harm was caused, and it’s something that we as providers, and us as a community have responded to,” said Anderson-Reed.

Impressively, the ISAH continues to be a number that is answered 24/7 thanks to partnerships and RVAP’s staff. The hotline is answered by staff during business hours; however, without the Crisis Center of Johnson County, it would not still be a viable resource. During the first year of defunding, the Crisis Center covered the hotline during evenings and weekends.

Now, RVAP forwards ISAH to the Victim Service Call Center in Sioux Center during evenings and weekends. RVAP leadership traveled to Sioux Center along with a trainer from the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault after the defunding of ISAH to provide training to the VSCC hotline advocates.

Robinson said they will continue to partner with IowaCASA to offer sexual assault-specific hotline training to any of their sister centers throughout the state.

Sexual Violence Across the Nation

While sexual violence occurs at campuses nationwide, it has also become an increasingly important topic of national discussion. Critically, the concerning rates of assault at the University of Iowa are not an anomaly. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, college-aged women between 18-24 years old are three times more at risk to experience rape or abuse and 23 percent experience rape or sexual abusive through physical force or violence.  

“I remember reading that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, making this an issue that will affect almost all women, whether it happens to them or someone they love. If we could change the conversation that Iowa is having about sexual assault and make stronger efforts to believe and to help women, I think we’d see these shocking statistics go down,” said UI student Julia Howe.

Howe’s statistic isn’t far off from the truth. RVAP reports that one in five women, one in 14 men, and one in four transgender students experience sexual assault. RVAP has also noted that 68 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police and 98 percent of rapists will not spend time in jail.

I think that most people think that when someone is not coming forward to talk about a situation, they must be fine. It could take someone years to open up about a situation,” Long said.

According to advocates, a transparent solution to sexual violence requires a larger conversation about the problem and a community effort in the state of Iowa. In terms of the future for victim programming, Anderson-Reed is optimistic. “I’m excited for queer services that are transformative and creative, and grass-roots based. I’m excited for community resiliency and healing,” she said. 

Anderson-Reed says that Transformative Healing still exists as a volunteer-based organization today due to the support of the community. She said losing funding and spending over a year fundraising and grant writing to maintain the organization really changed the way she approaches non-profit work and community organizing.

“I believe in community resiliency and healing and support that regardless of what organization it’s under or whether it’s part of an organization at all,” she said. “I guess it’s that energy that I want to support and cultivate.”

Robinson is too, grateful for the opportunity RVAP has to carry forward the legacy of activists and advocates.

“The strength, courage, and resilience of everyone who has been part of RVAP’s history is incredibly inspiring.  Similarly, the future of this amazing organization is very exciting,” said Robinson.

Robinson said they continue to work to improve the quality and inclusivity of their services and programming. After 46 years, he believes RVAP remains to be committed to their very real mission of ending sexual violence.

“We know that one day we will succeed in concert with our many campus and community partners,” said Robinson. “Until then, we will remain steadfast in our efforts towards that goal.”

Since 2017, both Transformative Healing and RVAP have hosted numerous fundraisers to raise money and awareness of victim services. RVAP presented a Race to Zero virtual 5K allowing users statewide to virtually ride while raising money. The program also teamed up with an event planning class at the University of Iowa to produce a Halloween themed 5K.

Transformative Healing has scheduled phonathons and other fundraisers as well. Last summer during Pride month, they hosted a pop-up thrift market celebrating all types of clothing categorized by measurements rather than by gender assumptions.

Currently, Transformative Healing is offering a Queer Art Healing Group where community members can process emotions and trauma through art. They’ll be constructing and binding visual journals throughout the months of March-June on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month.

Recently, RVAP presented their second annual What About Me(n) Summit exploring how their community can redefine masculinity and influence the culture we live in to end gender-based and interpersonal violence. They also promoted the University of Iowa Presidential Lecture where Karen Heimer discussed violence among women and the patterns that are formed from it.

In 2015, the University of Iowa asked students to participate in the first ever Speak Out survey where students could anonymously answer questions examining sexual misconduct occurring on campus, including sexual harassment, sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking.

The Way Forward

The university’s previous plans and coalitions have been ruled out after the introduction of a new three year plan. According to the 2018 Anti-Violence Plan website, the campaign “focuses on prevention and education, intervention, and policy, and it’s influenced by responses to the second iteration of the Speak Out Iowa campus climate survey, evidence-informed efforts and practices, and input from members of the University of Iowa Anti-Violence Coalition, survivors, and stakeholders.”

When it comes to how paramount these victim services are to the state of Iowa, Robinson believes that the most powerful people he has ever met are the victims and survivors of abuse and violence. He believes that the strongest and most powerful people he has ever met are the victims and survivors of abuse and violence and in turn, is what makes victims services not just important for Iowa, but for a nation as a whole.

“I am privileged to have worked at victim service agencies for the past 13 years,” Robinson said. Anderson Reed encourages people to support these resources and increase awareness about them.

“That means calling your representative, being informed about legislation, volunteer, donate, any and all ways that are accessible and meaningful to you,” Anderson-Reed said.

“Victim service agencies, like RVAP, exist because of the worst of humanity,” said Robinson. “However, the helpers who volunteer and work at these agencies are able to witness the very best of humanity as well.”

Emily Weaver is a senior Journalism & Mass Communications and Sports Studies major from the University of Iowa.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion. The cover photo above is courtesy of the University of Iowa’s Division of Student Life. It was taken of students at a demonstration for Take Back the Night, an event part of Sexual Assault Activism month.

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