Last winter, Cleveland State University student Melanie Smith* was sexually assaulted by a coworker at her off-campus job. Shortly afterward, she learned in her Women’s Studies class that the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center operated an on-campus office.
There, she received counseling that helped her realize it wasn’t her fault and that her offender had manipulated her. Smith learned that it was okay to grieve what had happened to her, and that the anger, depression, and nightmares she was experiencing were normal. A rape crisis advocate also accompanied her whenever she worked with the police, explaining the entire process.
“At first, I had no idea of how to handle it alone, so I just cried, and it made me very depressed and suicidal,” recalls Smith. “I don’t think I would be in the same place today if it wasn’t for going to the CRCC campus office.”
The CRCC first initiated its campus program in the fall of 2015, after receiving a grant through the Ohio Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) fund—money collected from fines, fees, and forfeitures from white-collar criminals. The campus programs are part of a larger initiative to expand the center’s services throughout the Northeast Ohio region.
Recently, the organization received a $3.2 million VOCA payment, the largest grant in its 40-year history. The grant will enable the Rape Crisis Center to provide counseling, advocacy, and outreach services that will reach more than 44,000 people throughout Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, and Ashtabula counties.
The CRCC also received its continued three-year accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)—cementing its status as the first and only CARF-accredited independent rape crisis center in the country.
Currently, the Rape Crisis Center has offices at every major campus in the area, including standalone or shared offices at Baldwin-Wallace University, Cleveland State University, Notre Dame College, all three Cuyahoga Community College campuses, Ursuline College, and Case Western Reserve University (where CRCC has two offices in the Women’s and LGBT centers). John Carroll University has its own full-time advocate at its Violence Prevention Action Center, but CRCC provides joint programming and support as part of a formal partnership.
Depending on the services provided by the institution, these offices offer a full range of therapy/counseling and victim services to students, faculty, and staff—all at no charge to the individual. (Each institution pays the CRCC according to their scope of contracted services.) Should a student choose to file charges against an offender, which occurs in roughly 10 percent of student cases, the CRCC supports them as they progress through the criminal justice system.
“We want to be the first safety net, when somebody has something happen to them or when they might be struggling with something that happened to them in the past,” says Alexander Leslie, senior director of educational services, who oversees the campus programs. “They know that on certain days they can talk to someone or get support beyond our hotline to have a face-to-face connection.”
Leslie guides a staff of five, including a therapist and victim specialist, and each outreach specialist is responsible for a specific territory on different campuses. “We try to spread the tasks so that everyone is reaching a similar number of students,” he explains.
In 2017, CRCC exceeded its expectations for helping students this year, Leslie says, providing therapy to 65 students (having projected 50), and advocacy services to 45 students. They also present special programs on campuses throughout the year, such as an information table with giveaways at Magnus Fest at CSU during fall semester.
“We try to be seen more as something fun and engaging, promoting the concept that it can be really positive to feel like you’re giving back and building a safe community,” says Leslie, who holds an MBA from CWRU’s Weatherhead School of Business and started with the CRCC 12 years ago as a part-time educator. “Of course, if someone is ever hurt, we’re here for them.”
The total number of students they currently see is not yet commensurate with the national rates of victimization: one in five women, one in 33 men (depending on the source of the statistics). Historically, the greater percentage of victims—roughly 80 percent—never report. Additionally, the average time between an assault and the survivor’s decision to report ranges between 20 and 30 years.
“We know we still have a lot of people to reach, but we have noticed an increased comfort with including us as part of the campus culture,” he says of the one-and-a-half year-old program. “We hope that our continued presence will enable folks to come forth and feel comfortable working with us.”
Typically, some students report an assault that happened on campus within the past six months or a year, while others report incidents that happened to them in high school or as children. They may have wanted to report the attack earlier but did not receive support from the parent or friend they told, so they stayed silent about the assault. In the college setting, students often feel a greater need to address anxiety or depression resulting from the incident because it is preventing them from studying and learning. It may also be the first time they’ve had access to professional rape crisis services.
“We’re catching people on the upswing,” Leslie says. “They’re learning, bettering themselves, advocating for themselves, so our program is helping people when they are ready to heal.”
Kathleen Hackett, MSN, RN, SANE-P, the pediatric SANE program coordinator at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, occasionally works with neighbor CWRU. She has taught classes on trauma-informed care and sexual assault, and she also educates physician assistant students on how human trafficking victims may present in a healthcare setting and law students on working with clients who’ve suffered trauma.
For the past few years, Hackett has served as the medical professional for the Fear2Freedom program that CWRU students participate in every spring. In addition to educational and awareness activities for students, they help by assembling F2F kits that are then kept by Hackett in University Hospitals Emergency Department and given to pediatric victims of sexual assault.
The kits contain replacement clothes and toiletries, a small journal that enables children to express their thoughts and feelings, and a little teddy bear with a Velcro flap over the heart where Hackett inserts the CRCC and Sex Trafficking & Advocacy (Project STAR) hotline crisis numbers.
As a personal touch, each kit contains a message from a student signed with their first name.
“We do kits for adults, too,” Hackett says. “But I know my pediatric patients benefit from the personal connection to someone who cares about them that the kits provide.
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