UI Women's Resources Center struggling to meet demand

UI Women's Resources Center struggling to meet demand

CHAMPAIGN — Tucked away in a second-floor office in a commercial building on Green Street, the University of Illinois Women's Resources Center is often the first stop for students or employees affected by sexual assault or harassment.

There, confidential advocates help them weigh their options and find useful resources as they deal with an assault or domestic violence situation or decide whether to file a sexual-harassment complaint.

As the #MeToo movement pushed the issue into the headlines — raising awareness and the number of complaints filed — the center has gotten busier.

By Director Sarah Colome's estimates, women may have to wait up to a week to see an advocate, unless the need is urgent.

"That's five to seven days that a student, faculty or staff member is waiting to access an order of protection, be referred for suicide prevention or access emergency housing," Colome said last month.

The center recently added a new assistant director, and the campus has approved funding for two more advocates, but faculty supporters are calling for more staff to handle the load.

Their resolution, to be considered at Monday's Academic Senate meeting, urges the campus to hire more advocates who have experience working with populations considered more vulnerable to sexual misconduct — international and undocumented students, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities or those from underrepresented groups.

The resolution also urges more funding for the campus Faculty and Staff Assistance Program and for graduate students and nontenured faculty members facing sexual misconduct — who aren't protected by tenure — and the appointment of a universitywide ombudsperson to help survivors of harassment and assault.

Professor Terri Barnes, one of the resolution's co-sponsors, said UI administrators are responding to the difficulties that every university in the country is facing because of sexual misconduct — by hiring more investigators and creating systemwide and campus committees to recommend improvements in policies and procedures for dealing with complaints, among other steps.

But the issue affects "a lot of people in a lot of different spaces at the university," Barnes said, and the campus needs a "wider conversation" about where those resources should go.

"This is a bottom-up kind of voice here, as opposed to the more bureaucratic response," she said.

Colome welcomed the support, saying the need for more staffing is long-standing and recognized on campus. "People do want to make sure we're supporting survivors," she said.


Expanding mission

Created 10 years ago, the Women's Resources Center was initially known as the Office of Women's Programs, in the dean of students' office. Its mission was to enhance the campus climate for female students and address gender-related issues, such as gender equity.

When sexual-violence issues rose to prominence on college campuses, the center took on that work as well and is now in charge of all prevention programs in collaboration with other units, said Colome, who was hired as director in fall 2017. It serves students, faculty and staff of any gender identity, including men, she said.

The staff is small — a director, two assistant directors, one support employee, a few student workers and a graduate assistant. It also has 150 trained "peer educators," who lead workshops designed to prevent sexual assault and harassment.

Only two staff members are trained to provide confidential advising — Colome and one assistant director. Neither is able to devote their full attention to that work, as Colome has administrative responsibilities and her assistant runs all of the center's prevention programs — which reached 12,000 students in 2018.

"So there's the ethical issue. We're constantly having to decide between running an efficient center or serving the survivor who shows up at our office crying," she said.

Both state and federal laws require universities to provide confidential advisers or advocates for students, faculty and staff in a timely manner, she said. They're also required to help survivors off-campus if the perpetrator was a university student or employee, she said.

"We are not in compliance with that right now," she said, opening the university to potential lawsuits and investigations by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.


More investigators

After some high-profile sexual-misconduct cases last fall, Chancellor Robert Jones approved funding for four additional investigators in the Office of Access and Equity, which investigates complaints. Some complaints had taken more than two years to resolve because investigators couldn't keep up with a rising caseload.

There are now six investigators who handle discrimination, harassment and sexual-misconduct cases, said Director Heidi Johnson.

"That will dramatically decrease the caseload for each of the investigators, which will make things go faster," said Senior Associate Director Kaamilyah Abdullah-Span, who said she was the only investigator for the office when she was hired in 2010.

Still, cases are now being delayed because advocates aren't available to attend interviews or hearings with the survivors — or women are going forward without advocates, Colome said.

"Much of the programming that we do has had to take a step back because of the need to serve survivors," Colome added. "We're constantly in a position of needing to decide: Are we going to serve this person or spend time creating and implementing these other gender-equity programs?"

Besides its prevention programs, the center runs a daylong Women's Career Institute with the UI Career Center and the YWCA. It works with student organizations to host events, partners with faculty or student groups for training programs on bias and other topics, and works with international students on cultural differences around dating and relationships.

A popular lunch series brings in professors, researchers, students and community members doing innovative work related to the center's mission. Other activities are scheduled during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, Women's History Month in March and Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.

"We're more than a sexual-violence crisis space, but due to the demand and our limited staffing, that ends up being a large majority of what we do," Colome said.

The new assistant director will focus on gender-equity programs, she said.


'The need is so great'

Colome commended the provost's office and other campus-level administrators for working to develop comprehensive recommendations for dealing with sexual misconduct, as "a lot of campuses try to avoid these conversations."

Whatever comes out of these efforts will make people more aware of support services and reduce the stigma of coming forward, she said, so the campus needs to make sure it has the staff available to meet the unique needs of people from all backgrounds.

"Different communities have a variety of needs," Colome said. "People living with disabilities, women of color, LGBT folks are disproportionately at risk of experiencing sexual violence. Rates for women of color are much higher than their white peers."

For an undocumented student, deciding whether to report sexual misconduct, and to whom, is "a very sensitive and problematic issue that's fraught with potential consequences," Barnes said.

"If we're really going to provide comprehensive care, we need people with certain levels of expertise," Colome said. "I can be as thoughtful and inclusive as I can, and attend training, but someone with a unique background in disability services is going to have a different level of capacity to serve students living with disabilities who have experienced sexual misconduct."

The resolution also calls for placing advocates in other areas around campus, including cultural centers. The goal is to reduce any barriers that might keep people from accessing services and create "relationships rooted in trust, so if something happens those students feel like they have somebody they know that they can go to," Colome said.

Students are often nervous about coming forward with a sexual-misconduct complaint, she said.

"This is a difficult issue to talk about. There is so much stigma. People need to trust the folks they come to see," she said.

Likewise, Barnes said an ombudsperson could give students and employees an avenue to bring up concerns outside the somewhat "legalistic" framework of Title IX complaints.

"We all hope we can work together to get more resources and more of a conversation going on campus about this, because the need is so great," Barnes said.

Vice Provost Bill Bernhard, who is overseeing campus efforts on this issue, declined to comment on specific proposals. But he said the UI, like other universities, is grappling with the best way to deploy resources to ensure the safety and well-being of students and employees, especially "those who are particularly vulnerable to these sorts of concerns."

"This is an area that's a priority for us, and we're taking a look at and considering a wide variety of solutions and responses and working hard to get that right," he said.