Students, faculty help survivors of violence through the Victim Assistance Team

Megan Fischer

When acts of interpersonal violence occur, it can be difficult to know who to tell, who will listen and who will help.

Colorado State University’s Victim Assistance Team is one of few university programs nationwide offering assistance for students affected by interpersonal violence. The program, headed by the Women and Gender Advocacy Center, offers 24-hour assistance and advocacy for anyone affected by interpersonal violence. It is in its 40th year at CSU.

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“Victim advocacy is a confidential relationship similar to attorney-client privilege or to that of which a doctor would have,” said Monica Rivera, interim director of the WGAC. “We help survivors navigate the emotional, legal and academic needs that they may need.”

The assistance team started as a sexual assault hotline and was expanded to include services relating to interpersonal violence, which includes sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and sexual harassment, said Casey Malsam, program coordinator for victim advocacy.

“Anyone who either works for CSU or is a student at CSU can serve on our hotline,” Malsam said. “The survivor guides the call. So we try to train our volunteers to be able to handle a lot of different situations.”

Rose Bork, a junior social work major and volunteer on the Victim Assistance Team, said in addition to serving survivors of violence, they also serve secondary survivors, which can include family members and friends of a victim of violence.

Junior Social Work major Rose Bork listens on the phone in the Women and Gender Advocacy Center office. Bork works the main desk in the office and is a volunteer on the Victim Assistance Team. (Photo Credit: Megan Fischer)
Junior social work major Rose Bork listens on the phone in the Women and Gender Advocacy Center office. Bork works the main desk in the office and is a volunteer on the Victim Assistance Team. (Photo Credit: Megan Fischer.)

“I think it’s important because when someone’s body is violated, it matters,” Bork said, referring to a picture in their office in the Lory Student Center. “It always resonates with me because when someone experiences interpersonal violence, it doesn’t always, but it can, change their whole world.”

In addition to SAVA, the community partner that serves Larimer and Weld Counties, the Victim Assistance Team helps more with violence that could have academic consequences if the survivor is a student.

“(The VAT) allows survivors to explore what all of their options are, which may include reporting to on-campus police, reporting to Fort Collins police, getting a medical exam or talking to a professor about getting accommodations,” Rivera said. “We help survivors determine what’s the most healing one to chose. Most of the time, survivors are not really even in a place where they need to process what happened to them — it’s often the fallout.”

According to Rivera, reporting can be an ambiguous term since survivors may have to report what happened to different organizations. CSUPD, Fort Collins Police, Student Conduct Services and the Office of Equal Opportunity are several that could be involved when a survivor reports. Where an assault occurred and who was involved are factors to consider when knowing where survivors should go to report.

In order to be a part of the Victim Advocacy Team, volunteers must apply and take a 40-hour training course. It can be taken on campus for credit or non-credit.

“Victim advocate certification, the guidelines are federally mandated, so that means if you are a VAT advocate you would have to go through 40 hours of training, which take place over the course of the semester,” Rivera said.

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Training topics include counseling skills, serving underrepresented populations and basic sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence training, Malsam said.

“We spend a lot of time role-playing in the class to get volunteers used to what it would be like to talk to somebody going through the things they are experiencing,” Malsam said.

As part of the Victim Assistance Team, advocates may have to go to scenes on campus, to the hospital or to the police station, Malsam said. Advocates will travel in pairs if they have to report to a scene.

“Our advocates respond to scenes sometimes, so we go to those places,” Malsam said of some of the trips that are part of the course. “It’s important for the volunteers to have a good understanding of how a police detective would approach their investigation differently than an advocate approaches advocacy.”

Collegian Reporter Megan Fischer can be reached at news@collegian.com or via Twitter @MegFischer04.