Restructuring Iowa victim services enhances services for sexual assault survivors

By Elizabeth Barnhill
Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault
As a long-time executive director of a sexual assault coalition, I spent many years frustrated at the inability of our dual domestic violence/sexual assault programs to provide comprehensive services to sexual assault survivors. Although advocates were committed to their work and healing for survivors, existing organizational structures inhibited their efforts. 

Infographic showing the number of counties, shelters, dual programs, sexual abuse programs, domestic violence programs, culturally specific programs, and staff

In 2012-2013, we conducted a review of services. The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault (IowaCASA) wanted improvements, and the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) wanted to move beyond shelter as a core service. During the preceding decade, funding for victim services had been continually cut, with programs laying off up to 25% of their staff. Outreach offices had been closed, programming reduced, and some agencies closed. Iowa has 99 counties, and in 2012, had 20 shelters, 24 dual domestic abuse/sexual abuse programs, three stand-alone sexual abuse programs, three stand-alone domestic abuse programs, seven culturally specific programs, and about 279 staff statewide. The Iowa Crime Victim Assistance Division (CVAD), the primary state administering agency, issued 35 contracts annually for an average of $260,150.
For several years prior, attempts at a collective self-review of agencies and funding distribution had only yielded recommendations that services remain unchanged. 
The numbers showed service gaps and indications that money was not being distributed effectively. In FY 2013, programs served 18,310 survivors of domestic abuse, 3,912 survivors of sexual assault, and 945 victims of other violent crimes. Shelter was an ineffective and costly way to serve survivors; the vacancy rate statewide was 42 percent, and the cost of running a shelter about $400,000. Shelter used about 40 percent of the state resources, but served only 11.2 percent of crime victims. 
In rural areas, most services were shelter-based, with survivors often crossing several counties to reach advocates. The numbers of sexual assault survivors served did not reflect numbers expected given the population base, nor the age groups most likely to be sexually assaulted. Services for sexual assault survivors were usually limited to hospital response and accompaniment to the criminal legal system. 
In the summer of 2012, CVAD asked IowaCASA and ICADV to consider a restructuring plan that would:
  • use funds efficiently; 
  • change service models; 
  • distribute funds equitably across the state by population; 
  • strengthen sexual abuse services, especially to youth; and 
  • better reach underserved communities. 
A model was proposed to divide the state into six regions, with each region having one to two comprehensive sexual assault programs, one to two comprehensive domestic violence programs, and one to two shelter programs. The model also proposed enhancing culturally specific sexual assault/domestic violence programs. 
In Iowa, the legislature appropriates victim services funds without indicating specific amounts for domestic violence and sexual assault programming. Those decisions are left to CVAD. The new model proposed that each type of service (sexual assault, domestic violence, shelter, culturally specific) would have separate funding and staff. The proposed change would enhance sexual assault services, create new and robust domestic violence housing services other than shelter, allow shelters to specialize in crisis sheltering, and provide reliable funding for culturally specific programs. 
For domestic violence survivors, the state of Iowa shifted to a housing-first model, with a focus on accessing and stabilizing safe housing as the first priority. All agencies were asked to provide mobile advocacy, hiring advocates from and working with survivors in their home communities.
The state proposed distributing the funds as follows: 10% of all the federal and state funds would be allocated to the culturally specific programs; of the remaining funds, one-third would be allocated to comprehensive sexual assault programs, one-third to comprehensive domestic violence programs, and one-third to sheltering programs. 
We sought input in a number of ways: lengthy discussions with agencies at IowaCASA and ICADV membership meetings, community forums held across the state, and dialogue with national experts and peers who had changed service models. The process proved challenging. In our tour of the state, communities, media, and community partners were primarily concerned with potential loss of shelters. Few if any had concerns about other ways to serve survivors of domestic violence, and there was very little discussion regarding sexual assault. 
During the following legislation session, we were able to convince key legislators of the need for change and the need to adequately fund changes. These discussions were also challenging, as some legislators heard from constituents who believed that shelter was the best way to offer services. We realized that over the years, Iowa had come to rely on a community understanding that prioritized shelter and considered other services, including sexual assault services, less essential. We were able to secure an additional four million dollars in funding.
After a lengthy grant application process, funds were granted to eight emergency shelters, 12 comprehensive domestic violence programs, 10 comprehensive sexual assault programs, and seven culturally specific programs. The culturally specific programs generally serve one or two counties but respond statewide with technical assistance to the other programs. Culturally specific programs serve:
  • Asians and Asian-Americans; 
  • Latinas; 
  • African immigrants; 
  • the LGBTQIA communities; 
  • the Meskwaki tribe; 
  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities; and 
  • African-American communities. 
The two coalitions were granted monies to enhance their training and technical assistance efforts.
Graph showing an increase in the number of traditionally underserved survivors served from 2012 to 2015
As of 2017, we have greatly increased the numbers of survivors served, changed the types of services available, and reached survivors who previously did not know of our existence. In all cases, the numbers increased dramatically; we are now providing assistance to 10,000 sexual assault survivors and assist about 3,700 survivors with culturally specific services. Sexual assault survivors are now seen in high schools and middle schools, colleges, and universities and receive advocacy far beyond engagement with the criminal legal system. Shelters and domestic violence programs have experienced great success in moving survivors more quickly from shelter to permanent housing. 
Challenges remain. Our state legislature just cut the victim services grants by 26%. The level of funding we previously had made this model successful. Some federal funding and guidelines do not match the changes we have made here. Although support for the changes has increased over time, in some cases we are still working on buy-in from directors and advocates. Mainstream programs continue efforts to increase their reach into marginalized communities, and co-advocacy with culturally specific programs is not always a smooth process. Although we have increased the number of advocates to 400 available statewide, many work alone on a day-to-day basis; support and remote supervision are ongoing issues. 
We had a unique opportunity to work closely with the domestic violence coalition and the funder to make these sweeping changes. None of us involved think we would have been successful without such a close partnership. We are happy to speak in more detail about the success and challenges. 
Find IowaCASA online at or on Facebook @IowaCASA
Filed under