Ohio University-hosted rape crisis center no longer considered 'confidential' resource

Program director says move may discourage rape survivors from getting help

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A screenshot of the OU Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program's front page, which notes it is no longer a "confidential resource," but can still provide similar services.

A rape crisis center serving a seven-county area out of Ohio University is no longer considered a “confidential” resource due to the university’s interpretation of state felony reporting laws, despite the center’s director saying the opposite should be true.

While the center in question, the OU Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program, remains open and can still provide resources to survivors of sexual assault, OUSAOP is now bound by OU’s interpretation of Ohio law to report to law enforcement the names and details of people who report they’ve been victims of a felony (if the victim provides such information).

Catherine Wargo, the program’s director, has said in a statement she provided The NEWS that allowing survivor advocates to keep their clients “confidential” is best practice, and argued that the move “may deter survivors” of sexual assault from wishing to come forward for support from OUSAOP. 

OUSAOP typically provides the following services to non-OU student residents of Athens and adjacent counties: a 24/7 crisis intervention and advocacy support hotline (740-591-4266); accompanying survivors of sexual assault or other violence to the hospital; legal advocacy; mental-health counseling referrals; and transportation services.

According to a statement provided by OU spokesperson Dan Pittman, the OUSAOP program still offers the same services as mentioned above, but with one big caveat:

“Currently, we inform survivors of our change in confidentiality status immediately upon contact and ask survivors to remain anonymous, unless they are interested in moving forward with law enforcement/legal reporting,” Pittman wrote of OUSAOP's policies now.

According to one source close to the program who asked not to be identified, the changes mean survivor advocates from OUSAOP cannot be present in the room during a crucial part of the support process at the hospital. Specifically, advocates cannot be present when survivors are asked to provide information about themselves to a nurse during a medical examination. Otherwise, they would risk hearing details that would need to be reported to law enforcement.

OUSAOP Director Wargo initially declined to comment for this story, citing the need to provide information through OU's spokespeople (the usual rule for OU officials speaking about university policy).

However, after she provided that information to OU, she said her statement was edited – by either the university's communications department, legal department or other administrators – to remove her contention that the program should remain confidential. 

OU also did not provide The NEWS with information that Wargo presented stating that, because OUSAOP accepts certain government funding, the program "agreed" to maintain the confidentiality of "client information."

Here's her original statement: "As a rape crisis center serving Athens, Gallia, Hocking, Meigs, Morgan and Vinton counties in southeast OH, the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program (SAOP) has provided confidential services to survivors and co-survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking since August 2013," Wargo wrote. "Through receipt of funding from Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Rape Crisis Trust Fund grants, SAOP agreed to maintain confidentiality of client information as required by federal and state law.

"In January 2016, Ohio University made the decision to discontinue confidential services through SAOP based on their interpretation of state felony reporting laws," Wargo continued. "As program coordinator of SAOP, I believe that confidential services are best practices for survivors of sexual violence. The move to non-confidential services may deter survivors from seeking services and hinders advocates ability to provide services that survivors may be requesting. I am hopeful that SAOP will provide confidential services again in the future."

That statement was edited into the following statement by OU, according to Wargo. However, this statement was never provided to The NEWS.

"As a rape crisis center serving Athens, Gallia, Hocking, Meigs, Morgan and Vinton counties in Southeast OH, the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program (SAOP) has provided confidential services to survivors and co-survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking since August 2013. Through receipt of funding from Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Rape Crisis Trust Fund grants, SAOP agreed to maintain confidentiality of client information to the extent permitted by federal and state law," Wargo's edited statement reads. "Applicable law mandates reporting in certain situations including child and elder abuse; imminent threat of harm to self or others;  and, unless there is privilege, felony reporting. As program coordinator of SAOP, I believe that confidential services are best practices for survivors of sexual violence, but also respect the reporting requirements of state and federal law."

The non-confidentiality change to OUSAOP comes as a different program with a similar name, Ohio University’s Survivor Advocacy Program (which provides similar services to OU students only), has been out of operation for almost a half a year after its coordinator left the school. OU has said the program will return fall semester 2016 with its confidentiality intact despite initial student and advocate fears of the opposite happening.

As for the other program, “The decision to discontinue confidential services (at OUSAOP) has been based on Ohio University’s interpretation of state laws regulating felony reporting of crimes,” Pittman wrote.

Katie Hanna, executive director of statewide advocacy group the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, argued in an email this week that Ohio’s laws allow OUSAOP to keep its confidentiality clause to protect the identities of survivors who come forward to the center.

"Trained rape crisis advocates are not violating the law by not reporting identifiable adult victim information to law enforcement,” she said.

She said automatically requiring survivor advocates to expose victims of sexual assault to law enforcement could have a “chilling effect” on future survivors who want to seek help.

“What we know about trauma is that when you have more confidential advocacy services in place, more survivors seek services,” she wrote. “Requiring an automatic report to law enforcement may have a chilling effect on victims seeking advocacy services and ultimately (their) ever reporting. If we want to make our communities safer, we must ensure that confidential, safe spaces, through highly trained rape crisis advocates at rape crisis centers, like those at OUSAOP, remain confidential places for victims of crime to receive the support they deserve.”

Pittman said that while the SAOP program is housed out of OU’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, its salaries and programming are funded through grants provided by Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds awarded by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Rape Crisis Trust Fund.

Hanna argued that because the program receives the rape crisis trust fund money, it is a “bona fide” rape crisis center, and thus is exempt from the felony reporting law requirement. The statement OU provided to The NEWS was scrubbed of any mention of OUSAOP being a "rape crisis center."

“Section G6 of the felony reporting law is addressing confidentiality (not necessarily privilege) for bona fide programs that provide (rape survivor advocacy) services in an ‘informal setting by a person who, by education or experience, is competent to provide those services,’” Hanna said. “This is widely interpreted around Ohio that the legislative intent for this section includes a rape crisis center (i.e. OUSAOP program serving multiple counties in southeast Ohio)…

“…For recipients of the Rape Crisis Fund, programs must certify that services will be provided to ALL victims, including those who choose not to engage with the criminal justice system."

Hanna explained that sexual assault nurse examiners at hospitals in Ohio are not required to give an adult patient’s name to law enforcement when a sexual assault survivor goes to the emergency room to have evidence collected (a rape kit). She suggested that Ohio standards mean OUSAOP’s program should have the same privilege.

“In Ohio, rape crisis programs are required to adhere to comprehensive service standards defined by OAESV and supported by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office,” Hanna explained. “… The cornerstone of these services is confidentiality: the ability to maintain the privacy of the survivor’s identity, identifying information, victimization experiences, personal history, and services sought and received. Survivors want, need, and deserve to discuss painful, personal information about their experiences under the assurance that this information will not be shared.

“Confidentiality is so important nationally that the Violence Against Women Act will not provide funding for rape crisis programs that do not ensure survivor/advocate confidentiality,” she continued.

OUSAOP employs two full-time staffers, a program coordinator and an outreach coordinator serving Hocking and Vinton counties, two part-time student office workers and “many” volunteer advocates, Pittman said.

OUSAOP serves Athens, Gallia, Hocking, Meigs, Morgan, Perry and Vinton counties.

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