Campus Victim Advocates
“Suddenly Everyone’s an Expert in Our Field”: Campus Victim Advocates and the Promise and Perils of Professionalization
1. Sarah Jane Brubaker 1
2. Brittany Keegan 1
Changes in how campuses respond to sexual assault under Title IX may dramatically alter the experiences of survivors and the roles of responders. This exploratory study examines how the roles of campus-based sexual assault victim advocates are changing and the effects on advocacy and survivors. Although most advocates agree that Title IX has increased awareness and reporting of sexual assault, they are concerned about the loss of confidential outlets for reporting, conflicts with other responders, and devaluation of their role. Some advocates see professionalization as a solution, whereas others worry that professionalization might negatively affect their ability to serve survivors.
1. campus victim advocates
2. campus sexual assault
1. 1Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
Sarah Jane Brubaker, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1001 W Franklin St., Raleigh Building, Room 2007A, P.O. Box 842028, Richmond, VA 23284, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Since the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued its Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) (U.S. Department of Education, OCR, 2011), attention to campus sexual assault has increased dramatically within scholarly, practice, policy, and public arenas. Research on the topic has filled special issues of journals focused on various aspects of campus sexual assault, and large-scale studies and campus climate surveys have attempted to accurately measure its prevalence across campuses and among particular groups and communities.
In the center of these developments are campus victim advocates, who are in a unique position to observe, assess, and participate in the response to campus sexual assault. Campus advocates have always interacted with individuals in a number of different roles and around a number of different processes, both on campus and in the community, and they are typically the responders closest to victims/survivors themselves. The DCL has introduced new mandates, processes, and roles to campus sexual assault response, and these have affected the advocate role and how they serve victims. As the “voice” of victims, advocates’ perspectives are critical to assessing and understanding changes to the myriad services, roles, and priorities of campus providers and policies and how they affect victims. Given the increasing changes to how campuses respond, the role of advocates is at an important juncture; their experiences of campus sexual assault developments are largely neglected in the literature, however.
This article begins to fill that void. Based on an exploratory study using in-depth interviews with campus-based victim advocates in the wake of new approaches to campus sexual assault framed largely through a renewed application of Title IX, the findings suggest that while advocates perceive a number of positive consequences of Title IX as a framework for campus response to sexual assault, they have also experienced challenges both to defining their role and to serving survivors. Adapting to new personnel and processes has required that they clarify and redefine their roles. Advocates describe, for example, an increasing number of individuals involved in campus sexual misconduct, including police, Title IX officers, attorneys, and community advocates, many of whom are insufficiently trained to respond to survivors. They also describe an ongoing and constant struggle to support survivors in a context of an increasing administrative commitment to compliance and mandated reporting and diminishing commitment to confidentiality and survivor empowerment. As their role, expertise, and training are compared with those of Title IX officers and attorneys, advocates must work to not only support and defend the rights and needs of survivors, but they must also defend their own competence, expertise, and professional value. In response to these dynamics, some advocates look to the promise of professionalizing the role in hopes that more formal credentialing and licensing processes will enhance their value, credibility, and authority, while others fear that such a move would compromise the integrity of the profession as well as undermine survivors’ interests.
In this article, we focus on the study’s findings regarding impacts of Title IX’s framing of campus sexual assault on advocates’ roles and their ability to serve and support survivors, contributing to the literatures on campus sexual assault and advocacy in general. We then further examine the prospect of professionalizing the field of advocacy, a theme that emerged during the study, analyzing our findings using theoretical concepts of professionalization from public administration, as well as feminist critiques of the professionalization of other female-dominated fields. We conclude with a discussion of potential benefits and drawbacks of professionalization for campus-based advocacy and recommendations for policy, practice, and future research.
Title IX and Campus Sexual Assault
Since the DCL reiterated the Title IX enforcement of campus sexual assault, attention to the problem has intensified in a number of areas. Not only has research on the topic of sexual assault increased and expanded, the ways practitioners are addressing the problem on campuses have changed as well (Jordan, 2014). Researchers have attempted to measure the prevalence and frequency of sexual assault (see, for example, Belknap & Sharma, 2014; Cantor, Fisher, & Chibnall, 2015; Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2007; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014), find accurate definitions (e.g., Rennison & Addington, 2014), and confront measurement challenges (e.g., Hamby, 2014; Krebs, 2014). Studies have addressed reasons why victims do not report, ranging from those applying to the general population, such as uncertainty whether sexual assault occurred, concerns about confidentiality, and fear of retaliation and of being blamed (Sable, Danis, Mauzy, & Gallagher, 2006; W. A. Walsh, Banyard, Moynihan, Ward, & Cohn, 2010), to those specific to members of marginalized communities, such as concerns about losing a community’s support and reinforcing negative stereotypes (Brown, Clarke, Gortmaker, & Robinson-Keilig, 2004; Donovan, 2007; Guadalupe-Diaz & Jasinski, 2017; Jimenez & Abreu, 2003; Orloff & Garcia, 2004), as well as mistrust of formal systems that have historically revictimized them (Dwyer, 2008; LaFree, 1989; Liang, Goodman, Tummala-Narra, & Weintraub, 2005; Willis, 1992).
Some researchers have examined the perspectives of those in specific roles that are addressing sexual assault on campuses, including campus police (Oehme, Stern, & Mennicke, 2014), administrators (Amar, Trout, Simpson, Cardiello, & Beckford, 2014), sexual assault nurse examiners (Veidlinger, 2016), and counselors (Conley & Griffith, 2016). Suarez (2017), for example, provides a “discussion on several organizational prevention and response dimensions of our colleges and universities” (p. 166) informed by interviews conducted with Title IX coordinators and other campus administrators. The main themes suggest that the myriad changes to how campuses are addressing sexual assault have created a number of challenges to creating meaningful changes to campus culture and processes. The article addresses a number of campus processes that focus on compliance, including investigations, conduct codes, adjudication, and others, suggesting that these new mandates are often at odds with the “victim-centered response,” typically emphasized by advocates, and new to many campus personnel.
Thomas-Card and Eichele (2016) describe the importance of myriad victim services that campuses provide, including several types of advocacy, but to date there has been limited published research (for an exception, see Moylan, 2017) on campus sexual assault victim advocates in the wake of the DCL. In the absence of a larger body of literature specific to campus advocates, we next review literature focused on victim advocacy in general.
There are many types of advocacy that occur in a wide range of settings and at multiple levels (Hippensteele, 1997). In the community, victim advocates might have specific roles, for example, legal/court advocacy (Buzawa, Buzawa, & Stark, 2012) or medical advocacy (Macy, Johns, Rizo, Martin, & Giattina, 2011). In addition, some campuses have legal advocacy programs that employ law student volunteers, and others offer more comprehensive advocacy services (Allen, Larsen, & Walden, 2011; Hippensteele, 1997).
On campuses, advocates assist survivors, including students, faculty, and staff, by providing emotional support and information regarding on-campus and community-based resources such as counseling or crisis intervention, by ensuring that survivors are aware of their options for accessing medical care, and, if the survivor wishes to file a report, by helping them navigate the reporting process (Association of Title IX Administrators [ATIXA], 2015). Advocates may also accompany survivors to appointments, meetings, or hearings as needed. Historically, they have been exempt from having to report instances of sexual misconduct to the university and/or law enforcement, thus providing a confidential resource for those seeking help (ATIXA, 2015). Many are also engaged in education and prevention.
There is general agreement regarding the importance of victim advocates on campuses. For example, a study of campus administrators’ perceptions of “ideal environments” in terms of prevention of and response to sexual assault found that respondents identified the participation of advocates as critical (Amar et al., 2014). One of the most important campus sexual assault policies and practices that make victims more likely to report and follow through with charges is the presence of a trained advocate (Strout, Amar, & Astwood, 2014).
A consistent finding regarding advocacy work is that it can create stress and emotional fatigue (Hippensteele, 1997). According to Martin (2005) and Ullman (2010), there is a strong emotional element to rape work that requires emotion management to cope with the distress, discomfort, and anger of the role and responsibilities. Ullman (2010) equates such stressors with “secondary victimization,” which advocates can encounter when working with medical providers and others in the health care system, as well as in the criminal justice and legal systems, where providers might respond to survivors with stereotypes, disbelief, and judgmental attitudes. An additional dimension of stress comes from the constant conflict faced by advocates between supporting and defending the needs of survivors and complying with the organization’s policies that may not prioritize those needs. For example, Hippensteele (1997) suggests that “[v]ictims’ advocates are, by their very nature whistle blowers, and large bureaucratic entities will generally serve to undermine the effectiveness of employees whose role or job duties bring them in conflict with the employer” (p. 294). Suarez (2017) also describes the emotional toll of working with survivors, but points out that this can be experienced by those in many campus roles beyond advocates, who may not be well trained in how to address the trauma experienced by victims.
This study was designed to help fill voids in the campus sexual assault and advocacy literatures by examining the experiences of campus-based sexual assault advocates. In addition to themes of specific challenges that Title IX has brought to campus advocacy, the theme of professionalization as a potential solution to challenges emerged frequently from the interviews as an important finding. To contextualize our analysis of that theme, in the next section we provide a discussion of major concepts related to professionalization that may also be applied to advocacy work.
Training, Professional Standards, and Expertise
Early scholars Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb (1917) described a profession as “a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain” (p. 26). Although some aspects of Webbs’s definition, such as the need for specialized training, are still seen as crucial elements of professionalization, the need for “disinterested” service provision is no longer frequently mentioned in the literature. Many modern scholars advocate, in fact, for professionals to have an intrinsic desire to work in the public service realm and to aim to make a positive contribution to society (Larson, 1978). Scholars have also noted the importance of professionals meeting a clear-cut societal need (Ammons & King, 1984; Mosher, 1968; Wilensky, 1964), which may in turn increase their perceived value.
Within a given field, the question of “who are the experts?” may also arise. In most instances, individuals with the highest level of education or training are seen as the experts. Like Webb and Webb (1917), modern scholars, including Wilensky (1964), Ammons and King (1984), and Mosher (1968), have noted the importance of training and have expanded on this requirement to include the implementation of professional standards and licensing requirements for professionals. In other cases, and often a major criticism of professionalization (especially with female-dominated fields such as advocacy), high levels of formalized education and training do not necessarily lead to expertise, and “experts” may sometimes claim to have authority in fields about which they have little to no knowledge (Fry & Raadschelders, 2014).
We can also look to professionalization in other female-dominated fields, such as social work, to better understand how professionalization may affect campus victim advocates. Iarskaia-Smirnova and Romanov (2002) found that a lack of professional standards among social workers, for example, led to a decrease in public recognition of the field. They also found that many social workers wished for more training and networking opportunities, and information sharing to help build capacity. Thus, professional standards, training, and collaboration may be helpful to social workers, advocates, and other care workers.