As president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Sondra Miller knows the need for their services is 100 times greater than their resources. And they’re one of the best resourced and most highly respected rape crisis centers in the country.
“We know for every survivor walking through our doors, there are dozens more that don’t come forward, don’t tell anyone what happened, or for whatever reason don’t seek help,” Miller said from a conference room in their new Shaker Square office, which officially opened Sept. 19. “Unfortunately, rape crisis programs across the state and nation have been severely underfunded and under-resourced for decades.”
Sondra Miller is president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.In the past two years, the crisis center has opened satellite offices in Westlake, Ashtabula and Mentor to make their services more accessible. In early 2018, the center’s board embarked on a strategic planning process to understand what the community needed, where the organization was meeting those needs, and where they were lacking.
“What came out of that process loud and clear is we need to do more for the African-American community,” Miller says.
Statistics indicate that people of color are at a greater risk for sexual assault, as are people who live in poverty. The risk increases for those of color living in poverty, all of which is compounded by an inherent mistrust of the criminal justice system, which can prevent a victim from having a sexual assault kit done after an assault or reporting the crime to law enforcement agents.
The guiding premise had been not just to open a new office and deciding where best to put it, Miller says, but to respond to the need for African-American survivors of sexual assault to have improved access to their services. The data they researched revealed that the most police reports of sexual assault were made in the Fourth District of the Cleveland Police Department on the East Side. A significant number of survivors from that district were already using their services, but they knew there was still a sizable gap.
Initially, they weren’t thinking about that specific location, she says, while they were interviewing different agencies, their community partners, and people who had been working on the East Side. All pointed them toward the same place. Then, during one of their interviews with people in the community, a woman said, “Shaker Square doesn’t belong to anybody. Shaker Square belongs to everybody.”
“I thought, ‘Well, then that’s where we need to be,’” says Miller, who admits she could only be satisfied if there were a rape crisis center in every neighborhood in every corner of the world to address the overwhelming need for the services. “If we’re choosing one place on the East Side, this seemed to be the most accessible to the greatest number of people.”
That concern in the Shaker Square area was amplified exactly 10 years ago this October, when serial rapist and murderer Anthony Sowell was arrested for murdering 11 women at his house on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, less than two miles from the square.
“We’ve known for some time that we needed a drop-in center for women who were victims of rape in this general southeast Cleveland area,” says Blaine A. Griffin, councilman for Ward 6, which borders Shaker Square. “Because there are so many calls for service, it’s a convenient place on the rapid line and all of the other methods of transportation for victims to get there, so it was just a well-thought-out, important service that they’ve put into our community.”
Cleveland Rape Crisis Center Client Meeting SpaceThe street-level location is clearly marked with signs reading Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, a fairly recent strategic decision. “Each time we open a new office, we get a little bolder in terms of our street presence,” says Miller with a smile. “Part of that is our message to the community and survivors that you don’t have to be ashamed to walk through these doors. We’re not ashamed of who we are, and we accept that this is a horrible problem in our community, but we are part of the solution.”
Funded through the Victims of Crime Act program administered by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, the new location provides counseling, victim assistance services, case management, Project STAR (Sex Trafficking Advocacy and Recovery) services for survivors of sex trafficking, and community outreach at no cost to clients. Visitors can park for free in front or enter through a side door in a pass-through hallway from the rear parking lot that offers more anonymity, if so desired. The 4,890-square-foot space features bright, open offices with a lot of light from the frosted windows for privacy and a warm, comfortable interior adeptly appointed with artwork and framed inspirational quotations.
“While new offices are a piece of our mission, we do not measure our success based on the number of offices that we have,” Miller says. “Our measures of success are the number of survivors that we serve, specifically paying attention to African-American survivors, and also what are the outcomes that survivors have once they do engage with our services.”
In addition to opening the new location to be more accessible to African-American survivors of sexual assault, the crisis center has added staff to its Community Outreach Team with the goal of being involved in a variety of community matters, not just those related to sexual violence, but any challenges important to the community and neighborhoods.
“We understand that so many issues that people are dealing with–systemic racism, sexual violence, mistrust of the criminal justice system–are all interwoven together and can be huge obstacles that keep someone from getting services,” Miller says.
This year, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is on track to answer more than 7,000 calls, texts or chats on its hot line. A few years ago, the number of incoming calls hovered at around 3,500. At any given time, 10 to 15 people are staffing the 24-hour hot-line operation.
Although always looking to find more and better ways to serve their clientele, the crisis center consistently receives high customer satisfaction scores. Moreover, it assesses PTSD symptoms three times: when someone begins services, halfway through their services, and then again at the end. Current figures indicate that 97% of clients see a reduction in PTSD symptoms, many of them to the point of no longer being diagnosed with the disorder.
The new office is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Survivors and their loved ones can make an appointment to access a full range of counseling, therapy, and healing services at the office by calling 216-619-6192 or 440-423-2020 or visiting here. Callers can speak to a trained hot-line advocate via telephone, text, or chat.
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at