New counseling program to help victims of sexual assault

When a person has been victimized by sexual assault or harassment, the world becomes a scary place. They may feel ashamed, guilty or uncomfortable about what has happened to them. They may be too embarrassed or frightened to seek help.

Yet without talking to someone about what they have been through, these victims miss out on valuable information and resources that can help them make sense of the crime and prevent it from happening again.

With this in mind, the office of Anti-Violence Initiatives (OAVI) is hard at work on a new program that will give victims at the College the opportunity to speak about their experience to trained, trustworthy individuals who will direct them to the next level of care.

The program, ICAN (Initial Contact Advocacy Network), will tentatively launch by the end of 2005.

The idea behind ICAN was formulated earlier in the year by the Sexual Assault Task Force (SATF), a subcommittee of OAVI. Its members – James Lopez, junior criminology and justice studies major; Ann Degennaro, director of Campus Wellness, and Tom Scheuren, a College graduate student and resident director – have been working with the director of OAVI, Jackie Deitch-Stackhouse.

ICAN will consist of a network of trained faculty, staff and students who can offer information on services and resources that are available to victims both on campus and in the surrounding area. ICAN members will come from various areas of campus life and may include professors, Residence Life staff, Health Services staff and coaches.

“ICAN has been revamped to cast a wider net across campus,” Deitch-Stackhouse said. “By having such a diversified network with different connections to the students, we will be able to attract more people.”

Members of ICAN will have a logo posted on their doors or offices, allowing students to recognize and seek out the guidance of a participant with whom they feel most comfortable.

“When something like this happens, it’s a very scary thing and there is a lot of self-blame,” Deitch-Stackhouse said. “Not everyone has the comfort level to walk into OAVI, so we need a ‘back door’ or other avenue for people to get the same help and resources.”

“It’s really important that we have this network of resource outposts,” Lopez said. “We want victims to know that there are options available for them.”

Members of ICAN will be able to offer victims a “Care Package” with information from Womanspace, Health Services, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, OAVI and local counseling centers. This package, and the program in general, will help to enforce the Choice Advocacy Respect Empowerment (CARE) philosophy that has OAVI created.

“ICAN members will be adequately trained to listen empathetically,” Deitch-Stackhouse said. “They will convey to students that they believe them instead of blaming the victim. At the same time, they will lay out information without forcing it. We don’t want to dictate what someone should do. We just want to give them options.”

To become involved in ICAN, members will face a rigorous application process. Those interested will have to be nominated through OAVI and then fill out an application that includes a personal and criminal history, a list of their campus activities and the reasons that they want to be involved. Background checks will be extensive and include fingerprinting.

“Victim assistance is second only to victim safety,” said Lopez. “These victims are vulnerable. They need safe, reliable individuals to turn to.”

Once their applications are approved, ICAN members will face a 20-hour period of sensitivity training in order to be certified. The training will be held in conjunction with Womanspace of Mercer County.

“The training is only the first step,” said Lopez. “With so many resources available, our real job is to get the victims where they need to go.”

ICAN’s coordinators hope to start seeking individuals for nomination by late spring. In addition to aiding victims of sexual assault at the College, ICAN will help to keep track of victims and maintain statistics through anonymous reporting.

“It’s important to find out how healthy and safe our campus is so we know how to help,” Deitch-Stackhouse said. “If there were only two or three people being victimized on campus each year, we wouldn’t need to do this. But the number is certainly much greater.”

ICAN will be kicking off its advertising campaign on April 7, when coordinating members will speak at the Take Back the Night rally. In addition, fliers will be posted around campus. An official Web site is also in the works.

In the meantime, victims of sexual assault are urged not to wait. They can direct their questions to OAVI by calling (609) 771-2272 or visiting the office located at 159 Eickhoff Hall.