Earlier this summer, Ian Johnston of Fort Collins for Progress sat down with KT Heins and Dorothy Farrel, DM, LCSW, of the Sexual Assault Victim Advocate (SAVA) Center in Fort Collins. Heins is the Senior Community Manager and Farrel is the Executive Director.

Ian Johnston: For those of us who don’t know, what is SAVA and what do you do?

KT Heins: SAVA is the Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center. We work in both Larimer and Weld counties and provide direct services, including personal advocates, therapy for survivors and prevention programs in northern Colorado. We are part of the healing journey for all survivors whom we serve and we also offer prevention education courses. We connect with local schools for age-appropriate prevention education courses for multiple ages from middle school to high school and some elementary, as well, in the summer through the Super World summer program. We teach things like gender stereotypes, boundaries, and healthy relationships. Everything is done based on their age group, and we have several different educators for each level of prevention education with the goal of helping to eliminate sexual assault for the next generation.

IJ: So, your work is not just crisis management and survivor services, you also provide educational programs as well?

KH: Yes, that’s what makes us unique in this community. We offer both of those types of programs. Now that we are heading into summer, we have Super World coming up. It used to just be Super Girls, but we opened it up to boys as well. It’s a 5k training program. At the end of the program, the kids run the Fort Collins Human Race. We teach them how to run better. We get outside and play games. It’s really a boys and girls club and at the same time we’re teaching them lessons about gender stereotypes and safe touch and boundaries. Those kids can be fairly young (elementary school age) so we make sure the material is appropriate for their age. It is really helpful for that age group to start thinking about what boundaries should be, what safe touch looks like, what gender stereotypes are, etc. And it’s great fun every year.

IJ: Dorothy, as the new Executive Director of SAVA, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Dorothy Farrel: I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Social Work and I also have a clinical license in social work. For the past 25 years I’ve been doing some kind of social work practice, typically with youth and families. I lived in Arizona for about 15 years and during that time, I was an Executive Director of a non-profit that worked with high-risk girls in particular. These were girls that came to us through child protective services or juvenile corrections. We had a sex trafficking contract and we worked with those kids, as well, and I found I really had a passion for addressing the victimization of the kids. It wasn’t all sexual assault-related, but in each case it was some kind of victimization work. During that time I went and got my PhD, and then I started teaching. I taught at CSU for about 5 years. I still teach part-time for an online school because I have a love for that. I love teaching and working for people that think they can make a difference. Working with people that want to change the world is very rewarding.

And then about a year ago I decided that I was really missing non-profit work. I was missing engaging and finding my purpose every day. I was happy doing what I was doing, but I also knew that I was missing being part of the community and making that impact in a different way. So, I saw the Executive Director position at SAVA come up, and I really evaluated if it was the right fit for me because I wanted to make sure I could make a long-term commitment to the organization and that I would be passionate about what I was doing. I think this agency is so important because it has this continuum of services. Obviously, our Rape Crisis Hotline is really important because it creates that safety net for people who are in crisis, and it is one of the fundamental things that we do, but then we have the prevention component which I love because we’re trying to change the culture.

As an example, I was meeting with a community member the other day and he was talking about his mother. She was assaulted in the 1940’s. He made a comment about his mother. He always felt there was something wrong; that she was a bad mom, that she was unlovable and unable to provide attention to her family. She didn’t drive until she was much older in life, and he didn’t realize when she told him about her assault that she lived with that for 40 years without any support. So, for me, it’s about providing the opportunity for people to find their voice and ensuring that people don’t have to live with that for so long without having that support or ability to take care of themselves. I think SAVA does a really good job about not only telling people that are in crisis that they have the ability to take care of themselves, but also to go to the kids and educate them about what’s okay and what’s not okay and what we should accept so that we can stop violence like this even before it happens. Especially since those boundaries seem to be very blurred in our society right now, especially in terms of bullying and acceptable behaviors with women.

IJ: Why is the work that SAVA does important?

KH: We handle 946 rape crisis hotline calls each year. We reach nearly 1,400 youth in our youth education programs. We reach individuals in both Larimer and Weld counties. Those numbers also don’t count any walk-ins, and we have quite a demand, especially since #metoo, from people walking through the door.

DF: In addition, starting in June we’re going to be called on every single SANE (Sexual Assault Nursing Exam) that happens in our area. We’ll be there as an advocate in case they want to file a police report or to help them get connected to legal resources. They can also come meet with our advocates to help navigate the system. Our advocates also do a lot of outreach so we are often sitting with the clients in court rooms and in front of police officers filing the reports. A lot of time what will happen is, if it’s an active assault or something that happened recently, we’ll meet them at the hospital because a lot of times they’ll go to the hospital first.

KH: Advocates are required to be objective. Remember, this is a situation where a person has had some level of control taken from them. The idea of an advocate is to help that person decide what they want their healing journey to be and to help them regain control. We touched on this earlier, but we offer a SANE (Sexual Assault Nursing Exam). This does have be done within the first seven weeks. So, say someone calls here and they don’t want to report to the police but they do want our services, they still have full access to our services, whether they report or not. There is other legal assistance that we can offer. We can help them with something called victim’s compensation. Reporting can be very intimidating for some people, and they may not need to do that to heal. It’s important to note that reporting to law enforcement isn’t absolutely necessary.

DF: We don’t know the statistics of how many people don’t report sexual violence. I read an article the other day that said only 38% of assaults are ever reported, but that number can change depending on the source. So, we have a substantial amount of people that come to us that don’t end up reporting. And again as advocates we try to remain neutral and support them in whatever their decision is. We encourage the SANE because if they do decide to report that information is important.

KH: The SANE is important for their health as well. That’s why it’s done within 7 days.

IJ: Has the increased awareness around sexual violence and sexual harassment brought on by the #metoo movement and recent high-profile sexual assault cases impacted your work? If so, how has it?

DF: One thing we’ve been noticing is that not only do people who are recent victims of sexual violence feel more safe to come in and talk about it, but that people who were assaulted many years ago–10 years, 20 years, 30 years ago–now feel more free to try to address the burden that this past incident created in their lives.. So, I think that’s one of the ripple impacts the #metoo movement has created. It has created the opportunity for women who have been holding this to themselves for decades to be able to find their voice.

We’re also seeing a great increase in the crisis hotline calls. Whether we can connect that directly to the #metoo movement, I’m not sure, but there does seem to be an increased community awareness. But, at SAVA we’re also being very proactive at the same time. For example, in Fort Collins we have the “It’s on Us” movement. The city of Fort Collins is one of the first cities in the country to adapt this, and it urges all citizens to take responsibility for addressing sexual violence, and to use bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault from happening.

We also offer free bystander intervention courses for staff at restaurants and bars. That program is called “Raise the Bar.” We go into bars and train bartenders and wait staff about the potential signs that someone is at risk of being assaulted so we’re helping them create some of that bystander awareness and also trying to take away that misconception in society that a victim’s behavior or the way that they are appearing has anything to do with them being assaulted.

KH: We actually did one of these trainings with Household Collective that was really interesting. We’d never done a music venue or a collection of musicians before. Something that people are talking more about since the #metoo movement is the level of harassment and assault that happens in crowded venues. I think there was a major article that came out about sexual assault at Coachella. It’s not only about the restaurants and the bars. A lot of event venues and music venues have reached out to us about it. We did a training at Odell Brewing and Horse and Dragon Brewing. Household Collective was so much fun because they were just really eager to learn about everything. So much of our interactions as humans is about a fear to approach one another. We have this confrontation aversion and this program is literally turning it on its head and asking: “How do you 1) interrupt a situation and 2) pull someone out of an uncomfortable situation or assist someone in an uncomfortable situation.” It requires a lot of bravery to practice bystander intervention, but it can really be very helpful.

DF: We should remember that sexual violence is on a continuum. It’s not just about rape. Assault can also look like so many different things: catcalling, bullying, and a variety of inappropriate behaviors. There are many things that kind of break people down in society that have to do with sexuality. So, just creating that awareness to ask “are you okay?” when someone looks uncomfortable in a situation or to give them a way to say they need help or assistance.

I think there’s also a misconception about who is most often doing these violations. Most assaults are conducted by people that we know: family members and other acquaintances. This is not always true, but a majority of assaults do happen from people that the victim knows.

KH: Assault can be defined as any kind of inappropriate touch, versus harassment which doesn’t involve touch. Indecent exposure can also qualify as assault in some countries so there’s a broad spectrum. I think what happens is a lot of people don’t understand the legality of the term, and they don’t recognize that assault doesn’t just mean rape. It can definitely mean completely unwanted contact or inappropriate touch or indecent exposure or molestation.

DF: I went to a presentation as part of our ‘Speak Up’ program, which is juniors and seniors mentoring education for younger kids. One of our staff was doing a sexting law presentation to these kids at high school to talk about “sexting.” The laws and the penalties for that are really severe for children in particular to share inappropriate pictures with one another. So, it’s important to be a part of educating teenagers who think that it’s innocent to be sending an inappropriate picture to their significant other, but the implications for doing that are so severe.

IJ: What is the extent of the problem as it relates to sexual violence here in Fort Collins and in northern Colorado?

DF: Well, we serve Larimer and Weld counties and I can tell you that 49% of our clients come from Fort Collins. I don’t know if we can attribute that to the fact that there’s a college campus in town or if there’s just a greater awareness here. But, I can say we have a significantly higher number of people coming to us from Fort Collins than all other areas that we serve combined.

IJ: What actions do you think are most important for us to take as citizens of Fort Collins and as a community to combat sexual violence?

KH: We offer a lot of opportunities to volunteer and get involved here. We talked about our “It’s on Us” initiative. We have a community pour night at Pour Brothers where we have some of our staff work as bartenders. We also try to make sure that we’re engaging with community events. So, important actions would be keeping up on your volunteer opportunities in this area, plus really engaging and learning about bystander intervention whether or not it’s through our “It’s on Us” city-wide initiative. If you want more information about bystander intervention you can Google it as well.

The “It’s on Us” campaign was based on the national campus movement and what we did here at SAVA is we made it into a city-wide initiative, and we are the first city to ever do that. And that includes the ‘Raise the Bar’ program. But, really the main thing is the bystander intervention training. Any bar or restaurant can sign up for this training. There’s plenty of opportunities to learn about how to do bystander intervention through SAVA, nevermind the nationwide initiative by Joe Biden and Lady Gaga. And it is a bit weird to see them in photos together because she’s all decked out and he’s this white-haired individual in this very conservative suit. So, it’s interesting [laughs]. But, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn and grow and stay informed and, of course, daily challenging your perceptions.

We always need volunteers. We had 946 hotline crisis calls last year. A majority of them were taken by volunteers. As a non-profit we have limited resources and staff so we really depend on volunteers. Our volunteers go through intensive training so they can be there to support people that are actively in crisis outside of office hours. We also need volunteers to help us with our summer mentoring program “Super World,” and it’s really quite a blast. We also need SART peer mentors as well. SART is a model where the adults go and train high school juniors and seniors as peer mentors and then the mentors do presentations throughout the year to younger students. They also go to the community to do presentations. This past year they went to the Platte Valley Corrections Center and presented to the youth that were there. It’s a really cool model where adults train the kids and the kids go out and do these presentations. 

KH: And what’s really neat about SART too is that some of these high schoolers take the training to college and then make a peer group in college, which is awesome. The idea that we’re going to create a prevention education system through their university is really impactful. Because, not only does it mean that they can go work out a local partnership with a high school on their own, but it also means that they’re bringing prevention education to that higher-education level, which is really important.

IJ: What policies do you feel could be effective in helping address problems around sexual assault and sexual violence?

DF: So, as a non-profit we are careful not to do lobbying and not to have political affiliation. We’re not technically supposed to engage in political involvement. Because I’m still new, though, I do have an intent to meet with Senator Kefalas and to talk to him because I know that he had some legislation this past year that had to do with sex trafficking. I think we have a responsibility as an agency to communicate the needs and the issues within the community and by doing that we should hopefully be able to impact policy. Then there’s the sexting laws. For those things it is important to be educating people on what the current policy is and whether it is effective or ineffective.

In terms of reporting laws, the question is how do we support our clients in making sure that they know what resources are available to them and what their rights are when it comes to being a victim? A lot of that policy informs our practice and what we do. And a majority of our work is dealing with supporting clients as advocates and helping them navigate through that legal system. We can direct policy-makers based on what we’re seeing since we do have direct contact with the people and the communities that are being impacted by these issues. It’s also important for us to be the voice of the clients that we’re representing so that they no longer feel oppressed and marginalized because this is a population thatwhich does feel that they’ve been oppressed by the system as victims. 

KH: If you want to learn about state policies you can check out the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA). They have a direct link to the capitol in Denver. They are major advocates on a political level in the way that we’re not because we are nonpartisan and direct-service oriented. Part of their non-profit mission is to interact with legislation on the state level.

DF: That is a very good point, and we are a part of their coalition. We do find our voice through them, so when there are issues we pass it through them and support them since they do go and lobby.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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