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Iowa City group hopes to replace regional sexual violence services from scratch by fall

Amy Smith works with rural victims of sexual violence for RVAP. Smith said she is worried about the rural counties served by RVAP after the University of Iowa announced it was closing the program.
Zachary Oren Smith
/
IPR
Amy Smith works with rural victims of sexual violence for RVAP. Smith said she is worried about the rural counties served by RVAP after the University of Iowa announced it was closing the program.

This year, the University of Iowa says it will close the provider of sexual assault services in southeastern Iowa. A local provider has less than a year to fill the gap.

For certain calls, Amy Smith carries a special bag with her. The bag is dotted with daisies. In it, she carries distractions: a coloring book and colored pencils, fidget toys that resemble robots and a couple of snacks. Her favorite items in the collection are little canisters of Thinking Putty.

“It’s some of the greatest stuff in the world,” she said. “Kids just love it.”

Smith is an advocate on the University of Iowa’s Rape Victim Advocacy Program’s (RVAP) rural team. As the rural service coordinator for Lee and Des Moines counties, she shows up for all kinds of people. Many of the calls are for child victims of sexual violence. When a parent’s own trauma gets in the way of being able for the child, Smith steps in. Through therapeutic intervention or helping them remember their rights, she helps the child negotiate the road ahead.

In 2019, about 69% of violent crimes against female Iowans ages 5 to 13 involved sexual assault, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It’s 54% for Iowa victims under the age of 5. RVAP advocates work with these victims across an eight-county region in southeastern Iowa. But come this fall, RVAP will experience a shakeup.

On Sept. 30, the UI is suspending its sexual assault services and closing RVAP. For victims, particularly children, this leaves questions about how current clients will continue to receive services and how a new organization will, in less than a year, build up the capacity to provide these services.

Call the advocate

Smith didn’t think she was cut out for handling cases involving minors. She has four kids ranging in age from toddler to teenager. She remembered one call that took her to a Child Protective Services interview with a 3-year-old. She spent the interview offering snacks, toys from her bag, anything she could to break through to a child who may have to face their assailant. Her own daughter was 3 years old at the time.

“All I could see was my daughter, and even more so, I could see myself,” she said. “I was 3 years old when I was harmed sexually.”

For survivors ages 8 to 9, the representatives of the judicial system will begin asking them to testify and give depositions. During depositions, parents can’t be in the room, but victim advocates like Smith can. As a defense lawyer tries to poke holes in the details of a child’s story, advocates like Smith can be there to call for a timeout.

“It’s powerful to watch these kids because they are doing the hardest thing they have ever had to do,” she said. “And possibly the hardest thing they ever will have to do: face their abuser.”

Smith said she’s had to tell her clients that RVAP is closing.

“I had to break it to them that my job ends June 30. And they’re like, ‘What are we going to do?’ And I’m thinking, I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re going to do. And now I’m at a place where I’m thinking, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Smith said. “I can’t leave these people hanging.”

Amy Smith works with a number of minors who are victims of sexual assault. In her Keokuk office, she keeps a number books for the children she works with.
Zachary Oren Smith
/
IPR
Amy Smith works with a number of minors who are victims of sexual assault. In her Keokuk office, she keeps a number books for the children she works with.

Initially, the university was going to cut rural direct service coordinators on June 30, leaving just one coordinator to oversee services for clients in all seven rural counties. In April, the UI changed course, extending that deadline to Sept. 30, RVAP’s closure date. That day, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) is supposed to have a full suite of services and advocates available for survivors of sexual violence in Iowa. Between now and then, DVIP has to determine what those services will look like.

As the UI winds down RVAP’s work, DVIP said it will fill that service gap. Smith said she remains a believer in the work DVIP does with victims of domestic violence. But she is concerned about the continuity of services for clients who have experienced sexual violence like hers.

“DVIP is also underfunded. They recently closed their office in Keokuk,” Smith said. “I think they do great work. But I’m worried these sexual violence services will fall by the wayside.”

Which services will be provided?

One challenge of the transition is determining what services will be replicated by the new provider. When you begin unwinding what services RVAP provides, the list grows. It offers services for child victims of sexual violence, unlimited trauma-informed counseling for survivors and even a 24-hour crisis line.

When asked by IPR News to enumerate what services the university expected DVIP to provide, the UI provided this list:

  • 24-hour crisis lines
  • Counseling and support groups
  • Advocacy for survivors engaging in medical, legal and academic responses to violence and reporting assault
  • Immigration advocacy
  • Advocacy for incarcerated survivors
  • Emergency financial assistance and housing advocacy
  • Community-based advocacy
  • Referrals to community resources

The university has said that the services RVAP provided will continue under DVIP. But even those services have varied widely over the years.
For example, RVAP used to advertise services like “queer health advocacy” and “trauma-informed doula services” on its website. But by Nov. 28, 2023, the “queer health” tab had disappeared from the website. By April 6, the “doula” tab disappeared too. Meanwhile, RVAP workers and volunteers said that these services were still being provided, even if they were no longer advertised on the website.

According to a 2022 program review of RVAP, queer health and doula services were slated to end. The same review had on the chopping block RVAP’s counseling services, one of the services the UI is charging DVIP to take over this fall. The report does identify a number of core services: the support line, transportation advocacy, rural services and law enforcement outreach. None of these are mentioned in the UI’s list.

IPR News obtained recordings of staff meetings where a UI administrator pointed to the 2022 review saying its recommendation was to move the organization outside the auspices of the university. IPR News also obtained the review through a records request and found no mention of RVAP’s coming closure or “transition” to a community partner.

In response to questions from IPR News, a UI spokesperson said the university official corrected their statements to staff, saying the university’s actions were based on an “interpretation” of that report.

While it’s true that the report doesn’t mention closing RVAP, it did raise some flags about the sustainability of RVAP’s work.

“RVAP resources are scarce. Staff reported working far beyond 40 hours per week and core advocacy and prevention services are not being provided across the service area. Complex decisions will have to be made in the immediate future about how to prioritize, proceed and grow,” the 2022 report said.

Norah Rehor is one of about 60 volunteer direct service advocates at RVAP. Since last September, Rehor and other volunteer advocates have received a steady drip of emails detailing changes to RVAP.

“I could tell there was something going on,” Rehor said.

In her work with minor victims of sexual assault, Amy Smith has found thinking putty to be effective for survivors who working through their trauma while also working through the judicial system.
Zachary Oren Smith
/
IPR
In her work with minor victims of sexual assault, Amy Smith has found Thinking Putty to be a tremendous aid for her clients.

According to emails obtained by IPR News, services at RVAP were in flux within the last year.

IPR News first reported that the Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird suspended payments to cover emergency contraception for survivors of sexual assault, a moratorium that began at the start of 2023 and hasn’t been lifted since.

“While not required by Iowa law, the victim compensation fund has previously paid for Plan B and abortions. As a part of her top-down, bottom-up audit of victim assistance, Attorney General Bird is carefully evaluating whether this is an appropriate use of public funds,” Bird’s office wrote in a release. “Until that review is complete, payment of these pending claims will be delayed."

A year later, Bird said she is still working on an audit of these services and continues to hold up funding emergency contraception for survivors.

RVAP never covered the cost of abortions, but it did help survivors recoup money they spent on over-the-counter emergency contraception medications like Plan B. Following Bird’s suspension of funding this medication for survivors, RVAP continued to cover these costs.

While RVAP as an organization did not officially distribute Plan B pills, staffers did in an individual capacity. RVAP volunteer coordinator Storm O’Brink wrote in an April 6, 2023 email to staff: “If anyone needs (Plan B), I have some that I can give you as, ‘Storm the cool resident of North Liberty’ instead of ‘Storm the volunteer coordinator.’”

Changes continued in September 2023. That month Diane Funk returned to the organization as the interim director. She carried with her a charge from the administration to implement changes depicted in the 2022 report. According to emails obtained by IPR News, that September is when Funk announced RVAP would stop taking new interns. The following month, Funk ended RVAP’s prevention work in a local school district to help students recognize sexual violence. After RVAP lost a large federal grant, Funk announced RVAP was putting a pause on all new grant applications.

In January 2024, Funk said RVAP would end its prevention programming altogether, and in February, RVAP put a pause on training new volunteer advocates, which continues to today. When asked whether the organization was shutting down, RVAP workers say Funk advised them not to seek other jobs. Staff said the rationale given was that RVAP needed to make sure it was meeting the requirements for existing grants.

Future services

DVIP’s director of community engagement Alta Medea said there are some pieces of RVAP’s work that will be familiar to DVIP. It already works with minors through domestic violence cases. It already does medical advocacy. But in the end, she said it will need to build a whole sexual violence division to properly serve clients who would have turned to RVAP. And there is the possibility that previous RVAP staff could apply and be hired on the new team.

“While RVAP is transitioning to a community organization — to DVIP — the services will still be provided to both victim survivors on campus whether they are faculty or students as well as the community at large,” Medea said.

To help fill in the gaps, Medea said the organization is building an advisory council. Medea said the group will include people with experience providing sexual assault services. She said the list was not finished but will be available to the public.

IPR News obtained an early draft of the list. Diane Funk is among its members. Funk said she believes DVIP is a good fit to take on the services.

“They have a strong reputation in the rural communities as well as Johnson County. They are successful at fundraising and positioning their agency in a way that it can succeed and continue on,” Funk said. “I think the alignment is great.”

“I’m still getting communications from partners saying, ‘Oh you’re just going to move to DVIP?' That’s not what’s happening.”
Amy Smith, RVAP advocate

But the communication between the university and its long-time partners remains an issue.

“I’m still getting communications from partners saying, ‘Oh you’re just going to move to DVIP?'” Smith said. “That’s not what’s happening.”

Since RVAP’s closure went public, five RVAP staff decided to leave before the end of June. Smith has also turned in her letter of resignation and has accepted a new job doing homicide victim advocacy at another area organization. She will continue managing the children’s cases she had already opened at RVAP. But she is concerned about adult cases and new clients in her area needing sexual assault advocacy support.

Departing staff appears to be a growing concern for the university, which has promised no lapses in service. On April 28, UI Student Life’s Maria Bruno told staff to document the community partners and work responsibilities that will need to be replaced by DVIP. To make up for the staffing gap, Bruno has told staff that volunteers RVAP trained already could be used to compensate for some lost staffing.

“It’s because they don’t know,” Smith said. “We (victim advocates) have been the ones building relationships with survivors and nurses and law enforcement. That’s a lot of trust that can’t just be handed off.”

This is the second story in a 2-part report on the RVAP program. Read Part 1.

This story is a collaboration between IPR and the Midwest Newsroom, a partnership of investigative journalism including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Do you have a tip or question for us? Email midwestnewsroom@kcur.org.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa