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Years Later, Illinois Rape Crisis Centers Still Recovering From Budget Impasse

Carrie Ward, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the budget impasse led to a loss of institutional knowledge in rape crisis centers across the state.
Carrie Ward, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the budget impasse led to a loss of institutional knowledge in rape crisis centers across the state.

Rape crisis centers are facing many hardships during the pandemic. Many are struggling to maintain services their clients rely on and balance budgets. Center leaders say it’s a repeat of what they went through during the Illinois budget impasse.

In January, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority put out a study about how the two-year state budget impasse affected rape crisis centers. Many social services went without state funding, and rape crisis centers had to find ways to adapt. The study reveals criminal justice advocacy dropped by 25%, while individual counseling across the state fell even more. The effects were worse for rural rape crisis centers.

Study author Anne Kirkner said the centers did Herculean work just to keep going.

“I think what stayed with me, it was just the stories of advocates walking into dark buildings and working with the lights off because they were prioritizing their clients over paying their electric bill,” said Kirkner. “It's just stories like that.”

Kirkner said the budget impasse between lawmakers and former Gov. Bruce Rauner was a “cataclysmic” event.

“It really was almost like an act of God,” said Kirkner. “I mean, it was an act of man, but I think the sort of effects that it had, it was like an earthquake or something.”

'An existential threat'

At the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria, CEO Carol Merna started just months before the impasse began. She described the experience as like driving the wrong way into traffic.

“It's unnerving, it's uncertain,” said Merna. “You know that you can avoid disaster if you get out of the way, get in the proper lane. But that just went on and on.”

Merna said the Peoria center didn’t have to tap into reserves during the impasse. Others weren’t so lucky.

Stacey Hoffman-Rosalez is the sexual violence program manager with Freedom House in Bureau County. She said they were nearly out of money by 2017.

“It was an existential threat to our agency,” said Hoffman-Rosalez. “We were not paid by the state and some grantors for eight to 10 months.”

Anne Kirkner, the study’s author, said agencies had to rely on one another and share resources during the impasse.

“Our state coalition really stepped up and did the best they could to help keep people together, to help direct them in different ways, whether that was opening lines of credit or just other strategies to try to keep their doors open,” said Kirkner.

Picking up the pieces

Even now, centers are still reckoning with the damage from the budget impasse. Carrie Ward is the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She said one of the most significant impacts is a loss of institutional knowledge.

“There were people who left during that time period, who weren't able to return, positions that were eliminated or people who just no longer felt the same sense of job security that they once had,” said Ward. “It was a turning point for some agencies.”

Some agencies have started to prepare for future possible funding disruptions. Kirkner said that was easier said than done during the impasse, leaving agencies backed into a corner.

“We tell nonprofits all the time, ‘Oh, you have to plan, you have to do your best and save money,” said Kirkner. “But that's impossible when you don't know when the money's coming in again.”

Susan Bursztynsky, the executive director for Safe Journeys in LaSalle and Livingston counties, said they’ve learned what to prioritize.

“One of the lessons that was the biggest for us was to make sure that we have some money set aside, so if the state is delayed in funding, that we have money in savings,” said Bursztynsky.

Effects of COVID-19

And then the pandemic hit. Many centers have had to shift services like counseling online. Carol Merna with Peoria’s Center for Prevention of Abuse said the pandemic has made it harder for people to get help.

“We saw a 30% increase in calls from people who could reach us that way,” said Merna. “Not everybody could. Being quarantined with your abuser makes it difficult to find the space that you need to be able to get help.”

Merna says the center has had to figure out how to adapt its messaging to the pandemic. And Stacey Hoffman-Rosalez of Freedom House said outreach has been key in their rural area.

“Often with rape crisis centers, victims are unaware of available services, they might be afraid to come forward, or they're just unable to access services,” said Hoffman-Rosalez. “Our community education and outreach is essential.”

And Hoffman-Rosalez said the shift to remote services during the pandemic has had some upsides for the rural areas Freedom House serves, echoing the 111% increase in telephone counseling for rural rape crisis centers during the budget impasse.

“A lot of times, some of the clients may have to travel over an hour one way to get to our office or our outreach office,” said Hoffman-Rosalez. “This has really opened up the avenues for them to be able to be at home and still access our services.”

The road ahead

Carrie Ward with the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault said while it’s been difficult, centers have done good work in adapting to their circumstances.

“Rape crisis centers continue to demonstrate that they do what needs to be done in order to get services to survivors,” said Ward. “It's been an opportunity to be creative, to think outside the box, to figure out how to reduce barriers and make services available.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year holds funding flat for the centers. Carrie Ward said that’s better than cuts, but not enough.

“We are consistently asking for increases in funding to be able to manage increased costs,” said Ward. “Remaining flat when there's always an increase to your cost is always a net decrease.”

The budget process is only just beginning. Negotiations between Democrats and Republicans will determine what the future holds for social service funding.

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