Office there to support survivors
Counseling, advocacy and education among them
By Anne Bromley
Andrew Alston, the former U.Va. student who was sentenced to three years in prison in February for killing a firefighter in 2003, had a history of violent behavior — his girlfriend had filed domestic violence charges against him — but Alston had never been convicted.
In another 2003 case, a fourth-year student was shot and killed in Charlottesville by her abusive husband — but no one even knew she was married.
These are extreme cases, but they illustrate that emotional and physical abuse happens daily and that the University community is not immune, said Claire Kaplan, director of the newly named Domestic and Sexual Violence Services office. Located in the U.Va. Women’s Center, the office has offered counseling and resources to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault since it opened its doors in 1991, but Kaplan said the former name — the Sexual Assault Education Office — carried with it the connotation that it existed solely to hand out brochures.
The new name leaves no doubt “that the program serves survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Kaplan said. Domestic violence and dating violence are at least as prevalent as sexual assault, if not more so, she said.
Having conducted focus groups around Grounds, Kaplan learned students often presumed that because the office name emphasized education, they wouldn’t be able to find the support they needed there.
In fact, Kaplan and her staff provide guidance and advocacy for faculty, staff and students who have been sexually assaulted or suffered domestic abuse and are considering their legal and internal U.Va.
options. They can go through the University processes of adjudication or informal meetings or go through the courts. Kaplan also consults with faculty who are concerned about particular student problems or who have questions about how to infuse these issues into the curriculum.
The office works with several student groups in educational activities. The Sexual Assault Leadership Council comprises student representatives from Sexual Assault Facts and Education, One in Four and Sexual Assault Peer Advocates. The groups collaborate in holding events, such as the upcoming Take Back the Night march and rally on April 7.
The Web site at http://womens center.virginia.edu presents a wealth of information via links to Sexual and Domestic Violence Services.
There are guidelines for friends, professors and family who might suspect or find out someone is being abused, but do not know what to do to help. Or the situation may be hard to figure out: for example, if the abuse is mainly emotional, the partner or spouse might present a pleasant facade in social situations, prompting others to wonder if the situation is really as bad as the other person is conveying.
But emotional or psychological abuse is the most common form, where a partner dishes out regular servings of insults, put-downs and jealous accusations. He (it’s usually, but not always, a he) might publicly humiliate the abused partner in front of others or monitor the car’s odometer and accuse her of seeing someone else if the mileage is higher than it should be. He might even threaten suicide, saying, “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.”
“It makes you doubt yourself,” Kaplan explained. “You become isolated; you do things you wouldn’t normally do. Others don’t realize how you get ground down emotionally, and [they] are afraid it’ll be worse to talk about it.”
In fact, when a victim does decide to take action, such as leaving, it
becomes a more dangerous time for her — and also a time when
Kaplan’s office can provide help with the steps necessary to get her out of the situation and to safety. The office provides education as a backdrop at all levels, from preventing violence to healing from it in the aftermath.
Kaplan has several ways of working on these goals, one of which
involves getting data from a University-wide survey of undergraduate and graduate students, conducted last year. This survey is more comprehensive than others from around the country, Kaplan said, adding that she hopes the data, which is currently being analyzed, will let her know whether the office’s programs are serving students satisfactorily.
The 2004 survey of students asked women and men about attitudes and behavior, and about experiences of sexual or domestic violence. The results will be reported in an upcoming issue.
Creating a buddy network for survivors of sexual assault is a new project Kaplan’s office is undertaking with a local nonprofit, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency. Through this joint project, U.Va.’s office and SARA will provide in-depth training for the buddy participants and share ongoing supervision of them.
After going through “a strict application process,” the potential buddies will go through training in April and be ready to start in the fall. The program will support the pairs of survivors with supplemental training, advocacy and counseling, depending on what comes up in their ongoing relationships.
Kaplan’s most recent publication is an essay on “Violence Against Women: Responses by Women’s Centers to Sexual Violence” in the book, “University and College Women’s Centers,” edited by U.Va. Women’s Center Director Sharon Davie and published in 2002.
Kaplan recently received her Ph.D. from the Curry School of Education in social foundations of education with an emphasis on women’s studies.