CHAMPAIGN – As dark gray storm clouds loomed over Champaign County the evening of April 20, dozens of protestors stood outside the Champaign County Courthouse.
They wore ponchos and face masks, holding signs above their heads and screaming into megaphones with raspy voices.
“People unite, take back the night!” Nessa Bolen, the event coordinator, cried out. Marching through the streets of downtown Urbana, the crowd echoed the words back to her.
Bolen, a trauma therapist at Champaign-Urbana Rape, Advocacy, Counseling, & Education services (RACES), said the Take Back the Night rally was an event held annually to give survivors of sexual assault a voice during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
This year, though, organizations like Bolen’s have found themselves in a crisis, said Jaya Kolisetty, the executive director of RACES.
RACES is one of many crisis centers in Illinois that have used this month to ask the community and state for help before a federal budget cut forces the organization to lose therapy services, she said.
The Trump administration began reallocating funds pooled to the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, years ago, Kolisetty said.
She said this decrease in VOCA funds, which organizations like RACES depend on to provide services for crime victims, will hit these centers in July.
Rape crisis centers in Illinois expect to see a 50% decrease in VOCA funding, amounting to about $9.5 million, she said.
“This is something that is completely unacceptable,” Kolisetty said. “We’re going to keep fighting until we know those funds are secured.”
Due to this decrease, Kolisetty said RACES will be forced to lose at least two of its five therapists, which she said will have a severe impact on the services they will be able to provide.
“We are not willing to let this happen if there is anything we can do,” Kolisetty said.
Kolisetty joined forces with Kari Miller of the Champaign County Children’s Advocacy Center to announce a fundraising campaign earlier this month.
The campaign aims to raise $260,000 by June 30, which is equal to the collective loss both organizations are facing in July, Kolisetty said.
“When we see decreases like this, it can feel like there isn’t that care,” Kolisetty said. “We want survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, child abuse, stalking to know that there are members of our community who have already decided to take that stand in support.”
A sexual assault survivor, who went only by Rose, said the use of therapy services, like those offered at RACES, saved their life last year.
Rose said they were assaulted by someone they trusted. When they came forward with their story, they said they faced harassment.
“By my second semester, I had kind of become villainized over it,” Rose said. “There were people that I’ve never spoken to that hated me over it.”
They missed their prom and graduation and said they felt as though their senior year of high school had been ripped away from them because of their traumatic assault.
“It was mortifying and humiliating … I kind of just wanted to hide,” Rose said.
They said they began using therapy services after they were told by police that nothing would come of a report to law enforcement.
“I’m definitely in a much better place now,” Rose said. “I would not have made it through my senior year without the support I received.”
Carrie Ward, the CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA), said having this immediate and free access to care is incredibly important.
Ward said about 78% of centers will reduce staff, 72% of centers will create a waiting list for services, 40% of centers will close outreach offices, and services will be reduced across the state if this funding is not received.
All 31 rape crisis centers in Illinois are at risk of decreasing the services they provide because of federal budget cuts, she said.
Ward said this is also a nationwide issue. Illinois is one of numerous states that has turned to its state government for help after VOCA funds were decreased, she said.
ICASA is petitioning the state government for a $12 million increase in General Revenue Funds, which will bring ICASA’s total funding to about $20 million, Ward said.
“We recognize that it is not a state issue that created this $9.5 million dollar hole … but it is survivors here in the state of Illinois that will be impacted by it,” Ward said. “It’s why we have to put our collective efforts together locally and statewide to try and make a change.”
Ward said this increase, which would be the first in over two decades, is desperately needed to offset the damage inflation and budget cuts have had on the workforce.
“Sexual assault survivors deserve this investment,” Ward said. “Our communities need these essential services.”
Laura Palumbo, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), said it is not uncommon for crisis centers to be underresourced.
“It represents how our society in some ways devalues and does not prioritize the experiences of trauma survivors and survivors of sexual assault because we havent made that investment,” Palumbo said.
Research shows, though, that sexual violence continues to be a significant problem nationally, Palumbo said. In recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey results published in February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sexual violence rates have increased between 2011 and 2021.
These increasing rates were found to be contributing factors to a “mental health crisis” among youth. It was reported that 60% of female students reported persistent feelings of hopelessness and 25% made a suicide plan.
Praveetha Patalay, a professor of population health and aging at the University College London, said the mental health consequences of sexual violence are already very large, even with current systems of support in place.
“Reducing these supports will likely increase the adverse mental health consequences further,” Patalay said. “We should be aiming to increase the support available to victims.”
For more information on Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website and explore more ways to learn, get help and boost sexual violence prevention.
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