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Who will answer?

Deep budget cuts threaten services at rape and crime victims’ crisis center

By Laurie Lynn Fischer


Laurie Schaible has been on both ends of the phone line of the Albany County Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center hotline. She was molested as a six-year-old. Years later, the company where she worked was cutting positions. Feelings from childhood bubbled back up.

“I was having very difficult emotional memories,” she says. “This powerful organization had control over my life. I was like that six-year-old child again, being abused. ”

The center was her salvation. Thanks to the counseling she received, she was able to overcome deep depression, earn an advanced degree and lead a productive life.

“I was a puddle on the floor,” she says. “I was a mess. God knows where I’d be if it were not for the center, and I say this unequivocally. These people deserve ten times the amount of money they earn. It’s incredible how they help people and what they do for people.”

CVSVC pulled her back from the brink. She wanted to pay it forward, so she took the training course to become a counselor on the 24-hour sexual assault hotline.

“Going through the training and helping other people also helped me heal,” says Schaible. “Listening to other people’s pain on the other end of the phone, trying to help them and knowing the right thing to say is an art.”

An Albany County department for 34 of its 35 years, CVSVC provides free services to a broad spectrum of sexual violence victims, from incest victims to battered moms. Clients have been raped, stalked, sexually abused or harassed. They have suffered from child molestation, assault or attempted murder.

Some of these victims either have no insurance or couldn’t swing the co-pays. Others turn to the center for its seasoned team of confidential therapists. All four trauma therapists on staff are at least ten-year veterans.

Center workers advocate for victims in police stations and emergency rooms. They provide counseling and give public awareness presentations.

Now, the center’s future is in jeopardy. Albany County’s preliminary 2011 budget cut funding for the CVSVC by 20 percent.

Unless the County Legislature acts, CVSVC’s budget will dive from $930,842 this year to $739,556 next year. That’s a difference of $191,286.

Where is all that money going to come from? Three positions—the head of volunteers, one therapist and an administrative aide—will be eliminated through early retirement and layoffs, Albany County Executive Michael Breslin says.

And after three months or 12 counseling sessions, therapy to victims will be cut off, he says.

“Now, we’re focusing on the short-term crisis therapy,” he says. “We’ll make every effort to have those individuals referred to other agencies that could more appropriately deal with the situation in the long term.”

The center’s staff has already been shrinking. Seventeen strong at its maximum, the paid workforce there was down to 13 after a therapist accepted a cash incentive and left last year.

The center’s deputy director is already poised to retire. She coordinates and trains the two dozen volunteers who provide crisis counseling services on the 24-hour hotline and support victims in emergency rooms, police stations and courtrooms.

The two other employees have until the end of 2010 to accept or reject the early retirement packages they have been offered, Breslin says.

Workers at CVSVC say they aren’t allowed to talk to the press.

But since August, hundreds of people have rallied behind CVSVC on the Facebook page that longtime center advocate Janice Irwin set up: Save Albany County Crive Victim and Sexual Violence Center.

Will everyone who dials that hotline number get the help they need in the future? Center supporters don’t think so.

Without a lifeline, trauma victims often stop caring for themselves and their families. They may commit suicide or wind up in psychiatric treatment facilities or substance abuse rehabs.

“If the crime victim rape crisis center were impacted, that would be devastating,” says John Crowe, a certified sexual abuse counselor with 30 years of experience. The Delaware Avenue therapist is himself a survivor of sexual abuse.

“Not everybody can afford to see someone like me in private practice,” says Crowe. “Not every practitioner out there is skilled in working with sexual abuse survivors. It takes a tremendous act of courage for either a man or a woman to work on this kind of trauma.”

“For years, even decades, people who had experienced sexual violence were in the mental health and substance abuse treatment systems without the issue ever being raised,” he says. “The crime victim sexual assault center puts itself out there as the place where this issue will definitively be dealt with.”

“It’s essential for people to have a safe space to do this work. When I say safe, I mean that people will understand, empathize and get it. American society as a whole is in complete denial that sexual violence is epidemic in our country.”

Rape happens more often than you’d think. According to estimates by the F.B.I. and The Journal of Traumatic Stress, one in every four college aged women experiences a rape or attempted rape. In the population at large, the sexual assault rate is one in three women, one in four girls, one in six boys and one in 11 men. That translates to one sexual assault every 90 seconds.

Even so, rape tends to be under- reported. Many official counts document only man-on-woman assaults. They exclude females assaulting females, adults molesting children, men assaulting men, minors assaulting other minors and child victims of incest.

Many victims never tell anyone. And fewer than 20 percent ever report sexual assaults to police.

Most victims are not jumped in dark parking garages. Most of the time, it’s someone they know. Someone who doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that “No.” means “No.” Or a manipulative predator who sniffs out weakness like a lion on the hunt.

“He or she knows the so-called easiest target,” says Crowe. “Perpetrators are really good at manipulating kids—especially a kid who is vulnerable—whose parents are going through a divorce, or a young boy who is questioning his sexuality. Perpetrators will pick up on that vulnerability.”

One of the key components in working with anyone who has been sexually assaulted is choice, Crowe explains.

“You know the old expression, ‘two consenting adults’?” he asks. “If someone forces me to do something, I have no choice. If I’m a child, and someone is manipulating me emotionally to molest me physically, I have no choice.”

In addition to working with survivors of sexual assault, the center counsels family members of crime victims. People like Jim.

His 32-year-old son was the eldest person shot to death in a 2006 Seattle mass slaying known as the Capitol Hill massacre. The youngest was a 14-year-old girl.

He describes the agonizing details of six brutal murders. “Then,” says Jim, “he walked over to my son, who was still sleeping on the couch, and put a bullet through his head.”

Jim spent some time out West attending memorial services and gathering his son’s personal effects. Then he came home. Compared to Seattle, where there was a tremendous outpouring of coordinated support, here, he felt a void.

“Finally when I came back, I was all alone,” he recalls. “Except for a few close friends, there was no knowledge of it really. Nobody cared. It was empty. After awhile, I got really depressed. I decided I really needed to talk to someone. I called up the D.A.’s office. The office staff directed me to the wrong agency.”

Jim spoke with a therapist at the Albany County Department of Mental Health.

“He seemed to be really willing to help, but he had never really counseled homicide survivors’ families,” Jim remembers. “I sat there in the first session and started spilling my guts. After about 10 minutes, he said, ‘You know, maybe you should really be talking to somebody else.’ So that was the end of my therapy. I was absolutely flabbergasted. It was so unprofessional.”

The very agencies that failed him—the D.A.’s office and the department of mental health—would have taken over CVSVC, if Breslin had gotten his way. In an effort to streamline government, he planned to ditch the director and deputy director positions, dissolve the agency and farm out its functions in 2005.

Public protest ensued. Petitioners collected more than 500 signatures. In the end, the County Legislature thwarted Breslin’s plans. Members of the Audit and Finance Committee unanimously voted to keep the center going by restoring line items to the budget.

This August, some of the same people who lobbied five years ago to save the agency began mobilizing again. Towns as far out as Rensselaerville have passed resolutions asking the Legislature to keep CVSVC intact.

Some 35 supporters literally stood up for the center during the public comment period before the 39-member Legislature’s October meeting.

Lisa Good, director of the Homer Perkins residential chemical-dependence treatment center in Arbor Hill, said she has not only referred many men, women and youths to CVSVC, but also used it herself.

“Any healthiness, any wholeness that I have as a victim of being molested—as a victim of being raped, as a victim of domestic violence—is through that support,” she said. “I am a whole individual. I am healthy and I have been able to touch many, many, many lives with the tools that I learned at that center. The last thing that I need as a community member, minister and service provider is to say ‘Go here,’ and when they get there, there’s nothing there waiting.”

Jolynn Backes, who is both a volunteer advocate and a survivor, asked who will train, recruit and manage volunteers if the deputy director’s position isn’t filled.

Backes also insisted that “Rape trauma is not over in 12 visits and three months. You’re asking victims who are working with a specialized therapist, who have come to trust that person, to turn around to somebody else,” she said. “A lot of times that isn’t possible.”

Center supporters came out in similar numbers for the Legislature’s September meeting.

“A lot of victims and survivors don’t have health insurance or the money to pay for out-of-pocket therapy,” former rape crisis center worker Mia Morosoff told the legislators. Many clients have no place else to go for help, she said.

The agency serves 3,000 clients in an average year, Laurie Schaible told the governing body. No other local organization is prepared to answer the phone round-the-clock or work with sexual violence victims, she said, noting that volunteers and staff made almost 100 emergency room visits in 2009.

College junior Ashley Huie came to the Legislature armed with a petition signed by 89 coeds. She is president of the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program at the State University of New York at Albany.

Students get college credit for volunteering at CVSVC, which hosts several six-week training courses each year. Colleges also sponsor Albany’s annual Take Back the Night rally and candlelight vigil, part of a nationwide event.

“As Albany County residents, we rely on the essential services the agency provides to crime victims in need,” the petition says. “It is imperative to keep the integrity, organization and staffing levels intact as it is today in order to continue to service the community in their time of need.”

Fourth Ward Albany Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith (D) of Arbor Hill remembered “the days when sexual assault was not even seen as a crime,” when “the criminal justice system put the person who experienced the attack on trial.”

“We do not want to go backwards,” she told the Legislature. “We would like to see these resources maintained at the same level here in Albany County.”

The deep cuts mean reduction of services, which would put the center at risk of losing the service-dependant grants that fund about half its budget, said Andrea Portnick, who received a 2008 volunteer-of-the-year award from the county executive for working the crisis hotline.

And if the center loses its grant funding, it may be forced to close.

In 2009, nearly half the center’s $960,602 budget came from grants. “The county provided only $500,000 toward services,” said Portnick. “If the county drops this funding, we may lose some of the grants.”

The grant from the New York State Department of Health hinges on the availability of 24-hour phone coverage and 12 crisis-intervention sessions. The state Office of Victim Services grant is contingent on therapy being provided. The center also gets grant money from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The center deals with the type of crime that occurs “behind closed doors, in private,” said volunteer Chrys Ballerano, who was raped as a Chicago teenager and wait-listed for counseling. The CVSVC has no waiting list, she said.

Ballerano described her experience with one victim, which still haunts her to this day.

“I was in the ER for ten hours with a woman while the doctor stitched her head back together,” she said. “She’d been tied up, beaten and left for dead. She was shivering under a little blanket. They wanted to strap her to a gurney and put her in a machine.”

“This is an issue that’s as old as time,” she said. “Everybody here knows someone who was raped or is a sexual abuse survivor. They might not have told you.”

If adult services are slashed, children will suffer, Paula Simpson of Altamont warned legislators, because emotional turmoil can compromise parents’ ability to function as caregivers.

“This is something that has touched all of us,” she said. “You want to know when it happens to someone you care about that there’s someone on the other end of the line to pick up the phone.”

Lois Griffin, who serves on the Social Responsibilities Council of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, urged the legislators against making any spending cuts, “especially for those who are most vulnerable in our society.”

Democrat Bryan Clenahan of Guilderland responded from the legislature floor. A member of the Budget and Finance Committee, he said he supports keeping the agency functioning at its current level.

“It is a moral imperative,” he said afterward. “Rape is an incredibly underreported crime. If you look at the numbers, it’s virtually an epidemic at this point. The department does good work. In the face of such a crisis, I don’t see how we can cut its services. It’s a small unit with no fat, a lot of volunteers, and it’s grant funded.”

In a phone interview, Audit and Finance Committee member Raymond Joyce said there are “other things we should be trimming prior to trimming something like the crime victim’s unit.”

“I believe it will be the opinion of the majority of legislators that it remains separate, as it’s currently staffed,” he said.

Legislator Douglas Bullock (D) agreed with his colleagues.

“I want to make sure we fill those items with new people after they retire,” he said. “My sense is [the legislators] are united to stop any of the cuts and to fill any retiree positions.”

Legislator Brian Scavo (D) also said he opposed any cuts.

”I know the job they’re doing,” he said. “They’re on the job, they’re conscientious and they’re helping people. Why cut a program that’s working for Albany County?”

Outside of the council chambers, center supporters had hair- raising tales to tell. One recounted how she was held captive and raped five times in one night. Another said privately that she was a teenage virgin whose boyfriend didn’t want to wait. He forced himself upon her, she said.

During two years of volunteering, Laurie Shaible fielded all sorts of calls: a woman dealing with domestic violence, a developmentally disabled person who had been raped, a father who was immobilized by guilt because he hadn’t saved his daughter from harm.

Schaible said she’ll never forget holding a man’s hand in the emergency room after he was beaten and raped by several other men in the Albany County Jail.

She also recalled a woman with post-traumatic stress who phoned in the middle of the night. Schaible guided her through a meditation and stayed on the line while the caller checked that all her doors and windows were locked.

Now that the center itself is in crisis, Schaible wants to make sure that people in crisis continue to get the help they need.

“We are going to legislative hearings, writing letters, making phone calls and contacting as many people as we can,” she said. “It’s a social and moral and fiscal responsibility to keep these services in place.”

Next time, it could be you or your daughter, son, mother, aunt or wife who’s dialing the phone.

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