WomenSafe Provides Alternative Counseling Option

By Alex Strott

In 1980, at the behest of several community members seeking to provide a resource for survivors of domestic violence in the area, the Addison County Community Action Group oversaw the establishment of the Addison County Battered Women’s Project. Two years later, the project became an independent entity. In 2001, it adopted the name WomenSafe, which more accurately reflects the wide array of services the organization provides to survivors of sexual assault/domestic violence and their children. According to their website, WomenSafe “works toward the elimination of physical, sexual and emotional violence against women and their children through direct service, education and social change.”

One of the most utilized of the services provided by WomenSafe is its 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline that connects callers in need of crisis intervention or emotional support with extensively and continually trained volunteers from the area. Some of these volunteers consist of Middlebury College students. Adina Marx-Arpadi ’13.5 volunteered at WomenSafe as a first year, from 2009-2010.

“I started working there because I wanted to get involved with something that dealt with the issue of gender inequality,” said Marx-Arpadi. “I had spent part of my gap year in the Middle East, where I found it incredibly challenging to be a woman, which subsequently made me realize how challenging it is to be a woman here, too.”

From 2010-2011, WomenSafe hosted 3,388 meetings and hotline calls with over 400 women and men experiencing direct abuse and assault. However, because of confidentiality, it is unclear how many of these callers and recipients of WomenSafe’s services were College students.

“In my experience working for their hotlines, I didn’t speak with any students that I knew of, although the callers often wished to remain anonymous, so it’s possible that the callers simply didn’t identify themselves as students,” said Marx-Arpadi.

In addition to the 24-hour hotline, WomenSafe provides a variety of other services to survivors of sexual assault, including advocacy programs, support groups, underserved communities outreach, and community education. WomenSafe workers and volunteers will accompany survivors to the hospital after immediate experiences of abuse or assault, and assist clients throughout judicial processes related to issues of sexual or domestic violence.

Middlebury’s Parton Center for Health and Wellness, on the other hand, provides somewhat different kinds of services for survivors of sexual assault and violence on campus. According to Gus Jordan, the executive director of health and counseling services, Parton provides two core services for survivors: immediate response and counseling.

Associate Director of Health Services Terry Jenny, the College’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), is trained to collect evidence after an incident of sexual assault or rape, as well as to comfort and support the victim throughout the process. Although Jenny has not been directly contacted by victims this year or last, she is generally available at her office in Parton or by phone. If Jenny is unavailable, a victim can contact either Public Safety or WomenSafe, both of whom can accompany him or her to the emergency room at Porter Hospital.

The other form of relief that Parton provides is counseling.

“Counseling provides supportive therapy for a person who comes in for any of a range of issues, one of which might be the consequences of sexual assault,” said Jordan. “We certainly have folks who come in who report that they have been sexually assaulted at some point. It may be more recent; it may be more distant. It may be that this is the first time that they’ve talked to someone about it.”

In the academic year from 2011-2012, three students approached counseling services for issues pertaining to sexual assault, meaning that sexual assault was at least one of the reasons for their visit to Parton. In the fall of 2012, nine students – male and female – came in for sexual assault counseling. However, it is important to note that these figures are conservative estimates because many students who seek counseling for reasons such as anxiety or depression do not reveal instances of sexual assault until well into the counseling process. Parton does not currently track numbers of complaints of domestic violence specifically, though they do track accounts of physical violence, of which there have been no reports in recent semesters.

Jordan believes that increases in students seeking sexual assault counseling do not indicate higher rates of sexual assault on campus but, rather, increased utilization of such resources.

“I think the enhanced focus on sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campus has certainly heightened student awareness and perhaps willingness to seek counseling,” said Jordan. “We will have a better idea as time goes forward.”

Jordan also expressed his support of recent efforts to establish a campus-wide sexual assault advocacy group that would function, in some respects, similarly to WomenSafe.

In the spring of 2011, in response to a 2008 recommendation of the Task Force on the Status of Women at Middlebury and a 2009 survey of students, the Sexual Assault Oversight Committee (SAOC) and its subcommittee on advocacy submitted a proposal for a sexual assault advocacy program. The proposal was approved by Shirley Collado, Dean of the College. According to the proposal, the program will consist of student advocates, selected through an application process, as well as faculty and staff advocates invited to participate. The advocates, who will receive 20 hours of training from WomenSafe professionals, will provide information to students about health and safety needs in emergencies, serve as a constant and lasting resource throughout a student’s counseling process, sit as the on-call advocate for a 24-hour crisis hotline and more.

Karen Guttentag, Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life, helped spearhead the SAOC proposal. She believes that many Middlebury students who have experienced sexual assault or violence do not want counseling or medical help right away; often, victims just want information or someone to tell them that these problems are “absolutely not okay,” said Guttentag.

One of the most crucial next steps in implementing an advocacy program that provides similar services as WomenSafe – but caters to a college atmosphere – will be the hiring of a new director of health and wellness at Parton Health Center. The administration is well into the hiring process and hopes ot see the job filled in the coming months.