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Iowans express frustration and shock following closure of sexual assault survivor service

Elyssa Brock of Washington was one of thousands of Iowans who have turned to RVAP for support following their assault. She said her victim advocate was a key part of her journey.
Zachary Oren Smith
Elyssa Brock of Washington was one of thousands of Iowans who have turned to RVAP for support following their assault. She said her victim advocate was a key part of her journey.

The Rape Victim Advocacy Program has provided support for survivors of sexual assault for more than 50 years. An IPR News investigation reveals how its abrupt closure came about and how that puts those services for 10% of the state’s population in jeopardy.

Reporter’s Note: This story includes reference to — but no depiction of — a sexual assault and the physical and emotional impact it had on one survivor. It includes a depiction of a sexual assault forensic exam. 

When Deanna Hansen saw Elyssa Brock outside the emergency room doors, they had never met before. Hansen didn’t know Brock’s full story, only that something bad had happened and that Brock had asked for help.

One of the first calls law enforcement and hospital officials make when a person reports being sexually assaulted is to someone like Deanna Hansen. She works for the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, a 51-year-old initiative at the University of Iowa. Advocates like Hansen are trained to help survivors navigate the medical and legal system as they seek care, justice and life after their assault.

“So many people in the rural communities (that RVAP serves) are already isolated,” Hansen said. “We literally meet people where they’re at. Not only emotionally, but also physically. We come to them. We are the ones that are going to make the drive. We are the ones that show up.”

"We literally meet people where they’re at. Not only emotionally, but also physically. We come to them. We are the ones that are going to make the drive. We are the ones that show up.”
Deanna Hansen, former RVAP employee

Hansen and her colleagues were surprised to learn in April that RVAP, which serves survivors in eight Iowa counties, will close, leaving questions about those services and their future. The university called the closure of RVAP a “transition,” saying services will continue through the Iowa City-based Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

An IPR News investigation found RVAP’s interim director recommended to a university administrator in February that the school stop housing sexual assault services. Shortly after in February, university officials began meeting with the leaders of the two programs about the closure.

The April announcement about the transition included limited information on layoffs and available funding. The university also did not alert many long-term partners, particularly in rural counties, about the closure.

This announcement strained relationships with clients, advocates and partners, including law enforcement agencies. It is against this backdrop that DVIP has been tasked with building a sexual violence support service from the ground up. And it has to do so before the university closes RVAP on Sept. 30.

Someone who knows the way

On that June morning in 2017, Brock, then 17, parked her beat-up 2002 silver Oldsmobile Alero outside the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. It was morning, and the temperature was rising. Brock says she wore blue jeans and a hoodie to hide the bruises that were beginning to show.

The person at the desk asked if she wanted to make a report.

Brock took a deep breath: “Yeah. That’s what we’re doing. Yeah,” she said.

In an office down the hall, an investigator said she still had time to do “a kit” before the DNA would be no good.

Rape kits, more clinically called sexual assault forensic exams, gather evidence before hot showers and laundry detergent wipe away the evidence. There is a head-to-toe examination, including a pelvic exam. A narrative description of events is gathered. Bruises are photographed. Fluid swabs and hairs are collected, bagged and documented. This evidence will be key to any prosecution moving forward.

One of RVAP’s rural sexual assault advocates said that of her 75 clients, only eight cases are actively progressing through the legal system. Whether for insufficient evidence, shame or fear of retaliation, many victims never file charges.

And not everyone has ready access to the exams. They require a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner. Washington County, where Brock still lives, doesn’t have one. The closest is in Iowa City, about 40 minutes away by car.

“We don’t have that resource down here. And I had to work that day too,” Brock said. “I knew there was no way I was going to make it up to Iowa City, get the kit done and make it back to work in time.”

Nevertheless, Brock made the decision. “We need to go to Iowa City,” she told her mother.

Outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics emergency room door, Hansen was waiting. This was exactly the kind of visit she had trained for, and she wanted to do right by Brock. But it was her first hospital advocacy experience.

“I was just terrified I would screw it up,” she said.

Deanna Hansen does direct service advocacy for Rape Victim Advocacy Program. For the last few years, she has been working with the team that manages sexual assault cases in the area’s seven rural counties. Pictured outside the Emergency Room at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.
Zachary Oren Smith
Deanna Hansen does direct service advocacy for Rape Victim Advocacy Program. For the last few years, she has been working with the team that manages sexual assault cases in the area’s seven rural counties. Pictured outside the emergency room at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

Checking in at the ER, Brock was asked for insurance information, which her mom provided. Hansen told the teenager and her mother to watch for charges from the insurance company. Victims of crime, Hansen explained, are not supposed to be charged for medical care related to their assault. Hansen spoke to a nurse and got Brock and her family a waiting room to themselves.

“It was a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have known,” Brock said.

And when it came time for the forensic exam, Hansen went in with Brock. The whole process, Brock said, made her feel like “a lab rat.”

“Knowing that your body isn’t yours yet again. It is now purely evidence to be collected,” she said.

Alana Dennis is a sexual assault nurse examiner in southeastern Iowa. She did not conduct Brock’s exam. But for the survivors in Lee and Des Moines counties who ask to have a rape kit performed, Dennis answers the call.

During an exam, nurse examiners serve both in a medical and legal capacity. They see to any of the survivor's injuries. Along the way, they search for evidence of the assault. Any evidence collected and any topic discussed could be part of a prosecutor’s case.

“Sometimes we may not seem like a friendly face because they know that we can be questioned about them in court,” Dennis said. “Whereas, the advocate is on their side. They cannot be questioned in court. They can tell them anything and not worry about how it could be twisted against them in court.”

Hansen said during the exam advocates are trained to listen and try to help the survivor cope.

“She sat there and was able to hold my hand. And she reminded me, ‘Hey, you can be on your phone, like, that’s OK,’” Brock said.

Hansen said the presence of an advocate makes a difference.

“So long as you are there for them,” Hansen said, “that’s the best thing you can do.”

DVIP agrees to take over

Most sexual assault support services also provide domestic violence services. Counting RVAP, there are only three organizations in Iowa that have independent sexual assault services. The availability of these resources ranges widely across the country.

RVAP owes its independence to how the organization was founded. It was just a few years after RVAP launched that DVIP got its first federal grant in 1979. The university’s Women’s Resource & Action Center charged the organization to explore the problem of domestic violence in the community.

RVAP and DVIP have worked side-by-side for decades; one four-letter abbreviation is often confused with the other. The service area for each group holds 10% of the state’s population. While the services differ, several RVAP clients who spoke for this article also received services from DVIP at some point.

Still, UI Student Life Vice President Sarah Hansen’s (no relation to Deanna Hansen) email to campus explaining the coming “transition of services” from RVAP to DVIP surprised many community members, volunteers and even partner organizations. For many of them, news stories were the first time they heard about this change.

For over 50 years, the Rape Victim Advocacy Program has served victims of sexual violence. But the University of Iowa announced is shuttering the program and has asked an Iowa City group to pick up the services.
Zachary Oren Smith
For over 50 years, the Rape Victim Advocacy Program has served victims of sexual violence. But the University of Iowa announced is shuttering the program and has asked an Iowa City group to pick up the services.

Olivia Brown works for RVAP’s crisis line and accompanies victims to the hospital. They were in class when they learned they were out of the job. Brown was blindsided.

“All of this was done through closed-door meetings. We were quite literally the last to know about it,” they said.

The April campus-wide announcement sent by email mentioned 12 affected staff. But records show the eight contract staff who will lose their jobs as a result of the closure were not mentioned. Some of those contract staff had been working for the university for years.

The email did not enumerate what services the UI expected DVIP to provide. It did not mention that 75% of RVAP’s funding isn’t the university’s to give. Most of the funding comes after a competitive process required for federal, state and local grants.

In terms of a reason for closing RVAP, the April announcement doesn’t cite a collapse in funding, an increase in costs or any mistakes made by staff. It does emphasize who RVAP is serving.

“While RVAP has most recently been fully positioned within the University of Iowa, the majority of clients do not report affiliation with the university,” Sarah Hansen wrote in an email to RVAP volunteers.

Both RVAP and DVIP serve an eight-county region in southeastern Iowa, including Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Lee, Van Buren and Washington counties. Of the people served, only 11% reported UI affiliation, according to the release.

That 11% figure came from a PowerPoint presentation with survey data from the 489 direct service clients RVAP served between July 2023 and March 2024. Half of those people reported no University of Iowa affiliation:

  • 12% were affiliated with the university.
  • 50% were not affiliated with the university.
  • 38% were categorized as “blank.”

During intake, RVAP clients answer a number of questions. Their answers are recorded for annual reports and grant applications. The questions give clients the option to not have their information recorded for this purpose. In the survey, 157 clients asked not to have their university affiliation known and appeared as “blank” in the dataset.
Since being asked about the source of its data for this story, the university has corrected its initial statement.

Laura Tull of Cedar Falls turned to our RVAP after struggling to find help in her own region. She spoke to a crowd in Iowa City protesting the University of Iowa closing RVAP on April 13, 2024.
Zachary Oren Smith
Laura Tull of Cedar Falls turned to our RVAP after struggling to find help in her own region. She spoke to a crowd in Iowa City protesting the University of Iowa closing RVAP in April.

Clients affiliated with the university may be from the majority RVAP has served, but residents of Johnson County and Iowa City—the university’s hometown—are overrepresented. Between July 2023 and March 2024, the crisis line received calls from over 20 clients, 70% of whom came from Johnson County. In its ranking of residential ZIP codes with the most clients, three of the top five ZIP codes were in the Iowa City area.

While RVAP is housed at the university, the University of Iowa only funds two full-time positions. The 18 other full- and part-time employees are funded mostly from federal money passed through the state of Iowa.

The university has not said how much it will fund the DVIP. According to its Department of Strategic Communication, Sarah Hansen will determine all future support for these services, in consultation with the university administration. The university and Sarah Hansen declined to be interviewed about the decision to close the program.

Twenty-five years or three months?

In campus-wide emails, responses to reporters and meetings with staff, the university has offered differing narratives on how long it has been planning to close RVAP.

In response to questions from IPR News, a university spokesperson wrote in an April 10 statement that the school is “continually reviewing its services.” Sarah Hansen told the Daily Iowan that the conversation about RVAP’s role at the university has been ongoing for 25 years. Multiple RVAP workers told IPR News that Maria Bruno, assistant to the vice president of student life, told staff the transition planning has been in the works for five years.

However, the first time Sarah Hansen met with RVAP interim Director Diane Funk and DVIP Executive Director Kristie Fortmann-Doser about the transition was Feb. 22, 2024, according to a university spokesperson. So the university has actually been meeting with DVIP about the transition for just three months, even though conversations about the program’s role have been ongoing for over two decades. And one day after that February meeting, Funk emailed staff saying she was departing RVAP.

Funk worked for RVAP in various capacities for more than 20 years. She returned as interim director last September. She said the university’s Division of Student Life brought her in to administer the changes called for in a 2022 review of RVAP’s services. These ranged from developing better fundraising strategies to reevaluating its long list of services. But in February, Funk concluded the organization’s future demanded more fundamental change.

“It became apparent to me that the relationship RVAP has with the University of Iowa, it doesn’t fit anymore,” Funk said. “My recommendation to the university was that they don’t house RVAP anymore.”

Funk said her recommendation was based on the structures that came with university oversight. The university had branding requirements for its associated websites. It had rules about communicating externally and about how it raised money. And for Funk, RVAP’s mission to serve survivors was of a different scope than the university’s work for “students, staff, faculty and visitors.”

A UI spokesperson said the decision to cut RVAP’s programming was not based on a single recommendation, but the result “after years of discussion that included stakeholders at every level.”

While the university went with Funk’s recommendation, several rural partners – including a county attorney’s office and nurse examiner – say the change wasn’t communicated to them. Many learned for the first time from news coverage.

Nurse Alana Dennis said she heard about the transition when an RVAP advocate sent her a link to a news story. Neither the university nor DVIP had reached out to prepare her for the transition.

“I honestly don’t know how to do my job without them (victim advocates),” Dennis said. For the rural counties she works in, she wonders how these services will be maintained. “And until I get news from DVIP on what the new norm is going to be, what services we are going to provide these people,” she said, “I really don’t have any way to prepare.”

One hundred people gathered to mourn the coming closure of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program on April 13, 2024 in Iowa City.
Zachary Oren Smith
One hundred people gathered to mourn the coming closure of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program on in April in Iowa City.

Beth Barnhill was the executive director of Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault for 32 years, until 2023. IowaCASA is a statewide organization that supports the work of the state’s sexual assault service programs. She said organizations with the right training and preparation can build sexual assault services into the domestic violence work they already do. But it takes time. And right now, DVIP is the only organization with the same footprint in southeast Iowa that could help.

“Planning for this is a long process and requires a lot of careful assessment and training if one is going to try to have these two kinds of programs together,” Barnhill said.

She pointed to a 2017 reportfrom the National Sexual Violence Resource Center that looked at the development of dual sexual assault and domestic violence services. It warns that when services are combined, sexual assault programs and staff tend to receive less funding than domestic violence counterparts. Funk said she was aware that when services get combined, sexual assault services often get short shrift.

“It’s always a concern when you combine programs that one or the other will get more attention. And generally, sexual assault does go by the wayside,” Funk said. “But I believe the conviction of Kristie (Fortmann-Doser) who runs DVIP ... has the capabilities to shepherd this and keep sexual assault in the forefront with her program.”

When successful these transitions to multiservice providers took on average 19 1/2 months to develop. The University of Iowa’s announced closure date for RVAP is five months away.

“What I find super concerning about the University of Iowa’s decision and to hear that people only started meeting a few months ago, was that information is readily available. It’s out there. It could have been considered. And apparently, it wasn’t by this research institution,” Barnhill said. “It’s just not in the best interest of sexual assault survivors to proceed in this manner.”

Funk disagreed, saying that while no rollout is perfect, the administration and DVIP have worked in concert to avoid a loss of service.

“I think there’s been a careful process in determining what’s best for RVAP and whether DVIP is positioned to take this on,” Funk said. “I think there’s been a planful process in this transition. I’m confident DVIP will be able to take this on.”

Before serving as a state representative, Marti Anderson was the founding director of the Iowa Attorney General’s Crime Victim Assistance Division. In her four decades of work in victim services, she said she’s seen independent rape crisis centers in Mason City and Sioux City combine and continue to do good work. But those were smaller communities and those took time.

“To close a center (RVAP) that’s been there for 50 years? I think that’s very fast,” Anderson said. “I think it can be done successfully, but I have concerns about the speed of the transition.”

Which services get funded?

Each year, RVAP has a $1 million budget to provide advocacy services across the region. While the university says services will not lapse during the "transfer" to DVIP, the organization says its staffing for new services is contingent on new funding. And DVIP learned it would have to compete with other organizations for the large federal grant that the Iowa Attorney General’s Office uses to fund comprehensive sexual assault services for the area.

RVAP services have been funded by a combination of grants, contributions from the UI, philanthropic donations and other smaller sources.

Most of RVAP’s funding, about $526,000, comes from federal dollars that pass through the Iowa Attorney General’s Office for disbursement. The single largest funding block was about $401,000 for comprehensive sexual assault services. On April 17, the attorney general’s office issued a request for proposals from providers who could serve RVAP’s region.

Grants, like the Iowa attorney general’s, are not guaranteed funding. DVIP’s director of community engagement, Alta Medea, said RVAP applied for this funding each year. Similarly, her team applies for the attorney general’s domestic violence service funding each year. DVIP, she said, is prepared to compete for the money that used to go to RVAP.

The “up to $401,536” mentioned in the attorney general’s press release is the exact amount granted to RVAP in each of the last two fiscal years. Whether the organization that is selected receives that amount is at the discretion of Attorney General Brenna Bird. Applications are due May 31.

For its part, the university contributes about 18% of RVAP’s funding. In the current fiscal year, it paid out $127,000 from the General Education Fund, and the student government provided $50,000. The university said it is committed to funding the two sexual assault advocates it currently supports at RVAP but has not released how much funding it plans to make available for these positions.

The remaining 10% of RVAP’s funding comes from the university’s endowment. It is administered by the University of Iowa Center for Advancement, the operational name of the State University of Iowa Foundation. It is a 501(c)(3) charitable entity that is separate from the University of Iowa. A spokesperson from the foundation said it manages two major funds that support RVAP totaling $410,000. Any change in how these funds are dispersed will require adhering to the donor’s intended use for the funds.

While DVIP has raised its hand to fill the service gap, the funding it needs to replicate services currently provided by RVAP is significant. Medea said DVIP plans to hire between 10 and 15 people. Three months after the university convened a meeting between DVIP and RVAP, the funding for sexual assault services in the eight-county area remains unknown. The Attorney General’s Office is expected to announce grant recipients in June.

It is that money that will ultimately fund advocates who help survivors like Elyssa Brock. Advocate Deanna Hansen was there for Brock’s worst day, as her advocate. Hansen was in court the day Brock’s three assailants were sentenced. When the PTSD was at its worst, Hansen talked her through it.

Sept. 30 is the day that RVAP is supposed to shut down, and DVIP’s sexual violence services are supposed to be ready. By that time, rural outreach workers like Hansen will be out of the job, and survivors will have to find a new pathway for care. Until then, the hotlines will continue to be answered.

“I don’t want to let down the communities that I've served for so long. I don’t want to let down the survivors there,” Deanna Hansen said. “Hopefully, we will have more information soon so we can give people a direction on where this is all headed. But right now, I just don’t know.”

This is the first story in a two-part report on the RVAP program. Read Part 2.

This story is a collaboration between IPR and the Midwest Newsroom, a partnership of investigative journalism including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Do you have a tip or question for us? Email midwestnewsroom@kcur.org.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa
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