In the wake of the #MeToo movement, community based sexual assault and rape crisis programs across Colorado are struggling to meet the needs of survivors.
Erinn Robinson, press secretary for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said the social movement has opened the floodgates to survivors coming forward, and sexual assault service providers are grappling with the influx.
“We’re humbled and honored to be (helping survivors), but I think the conversation that we’re having culturally and as a society is also putting an additional demand on sexual assault service providers,” she said.
The state has experienced a steady rise in reported nonconsensual sex crimes for the last five years, and Colorado now has the fifth highest rate in the country. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation reported a 28% increase in reported cases from 5,442 in 2013 to 6,975 cases in 2018.
The increase stands in contrast to the long-term trend of declining violent crime in the country that began in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In a study published in September, self-reported rates of rape and sexual assault increased from 298,410 in 2016 to 734,630 in 2018 in victims 12 or older — an increase of 146% in just two years.
It’s hard to know exactly why there has been such a spike in reports, but victim advocates say it could be traced to the expanding definition of rape, as well as survivor empowerment. The FBI and numerous state Uniform Crime Reporting programs have amended their definitions of rape to exclude the word “forcible,” which slightly expanded it. The #MeToo movement also has helped create a social environment in which survivors feel more comfortable coming forward, said Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty.
“We recognize that the #MeToo movement and other shifts that we’ve had in how our culture views sex assault encourages people to come forward and report the assault,” Doughtery said. “When I see a rise in the sex assault numbers, I don’t regard that as a negative necessarily, if it means that more people are coming forward and reporting when they’ve been sexually abused. The movement has helped raise awareness of what resources are available to victims.”
Proactive vs. reactive
Moving to End Sexual Assault is the only crisis program that serves Boulder County. Janine D’Anniballe, MESA’s executive director, said funding for services and prevention education can be difficult to find. MESA depends heavily on donations, contributions and fundraising to make up the difference between operating costs and what it gets from government grants. Right now, MESA can only afford to employ five full-time staff members, and relies on 40 volunteers to staff its 24-hour hotline.
“Honestly, the biggest obstacle is having enough funding to hire enough staff to do the work,” D’Anniballe said. “MESA accomplishes so much and we only have five full-time staff. Imagine what we could accomplish if we doubled in size.”
MESA receives grants from the state Victims Assistance and Law Enforcement Program, and federal funds, such grants made possible by the Victims of Crime Act and the Violence Against Women Act. Only the latter provides direct funding to assist survivors of sexual assault and rape.
MESA and other community-based programs put an emphasis on prevention education. Through its educational program, MESA strives to raise awareness of how to prevent rape, among mostly boys and men in high schools, faith-based groups and sports teams. The Boulder program, like many others in Colorado, can only afford to hire one prevention coordinator. While Victims of Crime Act and Violence Against Women Act funds provide financial support for education, money cannot be used for the salary of a prevention coordinator, according to Brie Franklin, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Community programs that have prevention education rely on donations or private grants to fund those efforts, Franklin said.
“It can be really hard to fund prevention because there’s such a need to help victims, but until we start doing more education and more prevention, we’re not going to put a dent in the problem,” she said.
MESA’s D’Anniballe echoed that sentiment. She said the problem stems from society being more reactive than proactive regarding sexual assault and rape, and many people aren’t interested in something that doesn’t show an immediate impact. Prevention takes long-term, systematic change to undo centuries of learned behaviors, she said.
“It’s not the simple thing of, ‘lets hand all the women rape whistles,’ because guess what, we tried that and it didn’t work. And as a matter of fact, it didn’t really decrease (sexual assault) at any level,” D’Anniballe said. “We know that the problem is about gender roles, socialization of boys and men and the rape-supportive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that exist. Until we make a dent in that, we’re going to continue to have this problem and that’s not an easy fix.”
Organizations stretched thin
Just as with MESA, community rape crisis centers across Colorado that work directly with survivors are having to stretch their organizations thin.
Such organizations serve counties based on the judicial districts in which they are located. If an organization covers more than one judicial district or one that spans multiple counties, its clients could potentially have to drive more than 100 miles for an in-person consultation. Some districts aren’t directly served at all.
Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Franklin said several barriers exist for survivors seeking help in the rural parts of the state.
“Some of the big challenges for rural communities are transportation, and being able to access in-person … services, not just over the phone,” Franklin said. “In general, rural communities just have fewer available services and organizations.”
Funding can be hard to find for existing or potential programs. At the state level, most funding comes from the Victims Assistance and Law Enforcement, or VALE, program. The state-run program is funded by a 37% surcharge on fines paid by those convicted of felonies, misdemeanors, juvenile offenses and Class I and II traffic offenses. The surcharges are used for grants to agencies that provide services to victims of crimes.
In 2018, the VALE program collected nearly $13 million statewide, but only 11.4%, or $1,478,140 went to sexual assault or domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and advocacy programs. Of that total, Boulder’s 20th Judicial District received $618,892, which went to administrative fees and various victims assistance programs. MESA received $67,000 from the distribution.
MESA also receives state money from the Tony Grampsas Youth Services Program, which provides funding to organizations for prevention, intervention and education programs designed to prevent youth crime and violence. This helps cover the cost of MESA’s prevention education program.
None of this funding comes directly from the state budget. Colorado is one of the few states that does not allocate general funds for community-based rape crisis centers, according to a study by the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault conducted in 2018. The organization asked state sexual assault coalitions to disclose whether their state provides general money specifically for rape crisis centers. Some coalitions did not respond, so it’s difficult to get the full picture. However, of the states that responded to the survey, Colorado, Arizona, New Hampshire and Tennessee directly reported no money earmarked for rape crisis centers.
Franklin said the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault is working with state legislators this upcoming session to change the budget. She believes there hasn’t been allocation from the general fund previously because sexual assault services haven’t been prioritized. Franklin said her coalition is asking for “just a couple million, which in the overall state budget is kind of a drop in the bucket.”
Dougherty, the Boulder County DA, said it can be a struggle to get funding from the state for services in general. Dougherty said he doesn’t want to minimize what the Victims of Crime Act and Violence Against Women Act do, but having support from legislators to prioritize money in the annual budget would really boost the services in smaller communities.
“It’d be great to have more funding from the state level,” Dougherty said. “All too often the local communities are left to try to figure these things out on their own. Obviously sex assault is something that affects all parts of the state of Colorado, and every penny could go toward helping someone who is a victim of a crime or specifically sexual assault or rape.”
Federal funds for sexual assault services come from the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act. The Violence Against Women Act has two major grants that all states receive: the Services, Training, Officers and Prosecutors, or STOP, Program and the Sexual Assault Services Program, which provides funding to support services, like child advocacy.
In Colorado, both the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act funds have been rolled into the Crime Victims Services Fund, which also includes the State Victims Assistance and Law Enforcement Program. Franklin said these programs are all put under one umbrella because of grant and reporting requirements. The grants are whittled away by strict allocation percentages for the courts, law enforcement and prosecutors. Most organizations are awarded grants from either the Violence Against Women Act or the Victims of Crime Act based on their qualifications.
For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, MESA was awarded $321,385 from the Victims of Crime Act, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Franklin said allocations from the Violence Against Women Act can be tricky. The state prefers to put organizations that provide help to children and adults under the Violence Against Women Act. Other programs that focus solely on adult victim advocacy, like MESA, are awarded grants under the Victims of Crime Act.
Rape crisis centers across the country have demonstrated the need for their services since the #MeToo movement began. On a national level, Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network can pinpoint dramatic increases in callers to the hotline after possible triggering events have occurred. According to Robinson, the organization saw a surge of callers in the wake of the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the E. Jean Carroll story and the premiere of the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary.
“That’s a demonstrable need for the direct services that we provide for survivors and their loved ones,” Robinson said. “It’s great when we’re able to tell that story because it helps the public understand the nature of the work that we’re doing and the need for our services.”
On a local level, MESA has also seen an increase in survivors seeking help. Since the popularization of the #MeToo movement in October 2017, there has been a 30% increase overall in calls to MESA’s hotline, with a 42% increase in the first year alone. The number of people seeking case management has remained steady with slight increases here and there. But according to MESA’s Hotline Supervisor Lindsey Breslin, just in the month of November the center has identified an increase in survivors seeking a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner exam.
Although the #MeToo movement has helped bring awareness to the issue, Franklin said she sees a state of fatigue growing among the general population. She said many people are tired of hearing about sexual assault or harassment in the news or deny that the problem is as rampant as it has been shown to be.
“(#MeToo) has helped open some people’s eyes, but now we’re in this attitude of now we’re tired of hearing about it,” Franklin said. “The resources just haven’t really followed that for those same reasons.”
Resources for victims of sexual assault
CU Boulder Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance: 303-492-2127, email@example.com, https://www.colorado.edu/oiec/reporting-resolution-options/making-reportCU Boulder Office of Victim Assistance, 303-492-8855, firstname.lastname@example.orgMoving to End Sexual Assault 24-hour hotline: 303-443-7300