After federal cuts, Illinois rape crisis centers ask state for help: ‘It’s essential that services be there’

The burnout that has hit so many in her line of work came for Phyllis Lubel last fall.

She had just finished a particularly grueling 16-month stretch in which she logged close to 300 hours inside Lake County emergency rooms, where she took on the arduous task of trying to help survivors in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault.

After nearly 26 years with the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee, first as a volunteer and then as an advocacy services specialist, the 58-year-old Skokie native had reached a breaking point.

I need to have a life, she thought. I can’t keep this pace up.

Across Illinois, scores of direct service providers like Lubel who work at the state’s 31 rape crisis centers are struggling under the weight of crushing workloads, stagnant wages and unsteady job security. Those pressures have intensified in recent months, advocates say, after a key source of federal funding was essentially slashed in half, a loss of around $9.5 million.

Survivor advocates say the fallout from cuts to federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants has been severe: A little over half of the state’s crisis centers have reduced staffing or frozen hiring, according to the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Five crisis center satellite offices have closed. Fourteen hospitals in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs no longer receive round-the-clock emergency crisis center responses when survivors arrive in the ER. Wait lists for counseling appointments have grown longer at some centers while others have turned to community fundraising just to keep existing services intact.

All this has put the state’s crisis centers on pace to serve an estimated 1,400 fewer survivors or their families this fiscal year compared with the last, ICASA said.

With the potential for more federal funding shortfalls looming on the horizon and COVID-19 relief dollars expected to dry up soon, survivor advocates have turned to Illinois lawmakers for help. Last spring, their efforts helped persuade the state’s Department of Human Services to earmark about $5 million in federal grant money, separate from VOCA, for crisis centers.

Advocates say more is needed. Last week, crisis center staffers from around Illinois filled the Capitol rotunda in Springfield to rally support for a requested $12 million increase in state funding, money they say will blunt the impact of federal VOCA cuts, ease the burden on front-line workers and, ultimately, ensure the work of crisis centers can continue.

“It’s essential that services be there when survivors need them,” said Carrie Ward, the coalition’s CEO.

But with about two months left in the legislative session, squeezing money from an already tight state budget could be a challenge, as lawmakers face pressure to aid asylum-seekers arriving in the state and the ever-present push for more education dollars and more funding for local governments.

Still, crisis center leaders say the consequences of inaction will be devastating to survivors, their families and their communities.

“The broad-reach impact of sexual violence permeates every aspect of our society,” said Anne Pezzillo, vice president of clinical services at YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. “If a survivor at one of their most vulnerable moments can’t get that support, and can’t get supported from trauma therapists specifically trained to work exclusively with this population, that just sounds unimaginable to me.”

‘Being there made a world of difference’

Lubel can still remember the first time she went by herself to a hospital to help a survivor.

It was 1998. She was living in Gurnee and working as a special education teacher when, motivated by a desire to give back, she answered a newspaper ad seeking volunteers for the Zacharias Center (then called the Lake County Council Against Sexual Assault).

She sat through the training — then 60 hours, largely role-playing scenarios — and signed up to answer crisis line calls and medical calls from emergency rooms.

Three months later, she fielded her first three medical calls, all in the same 12-hour shift.

“What I remember about that was the inequities in the hospitals,” she said. “This was the late ’90s. Every hospital was a completely different experience for the survivor.”

In one hospital ER, she spoke with a 16-year-old girl who, Lubel learned, said she’d been given alcohol by someone older than her, and then assaulted. The nurse, Lubel remembered, told the girl a forensic medical exam was not necessary because the encounter appeared to be consensual.

Lubel stepped outside to call her supervisor to confirm what she suspected. Then she pulled the nurse aside. The guy was older, she told the nurse. He gave her alcohol. There was nothing consensual about what happened. If she wants the exam, do it.

Lubel stayed with the girl during the exam and helped calm her anxiety over talking to her parents, who were en route to the hospital.

Later that night, Lubel drove to a different hospital, where she met a woman in her early 20s who said she met a guy through a dating service who assaulted her at his house. The nurse there calmly explained the entire exam process to the young woman while Lubel sat by her side.

By around midnight, Lubel was home, and the reality of what she’d just witnessed started to crystalize.

“I felt like each call was a success in terms of supporting the survivor,” she said. “If I can make it just a little easier for somebody, then I’ve done what I needed to do. The woman in her 20s was alone. Being there made a world of difference. Getting the (exam) done for that 16-year-old and helping her talk to her parents made a difference.”

Over the years, there would be many more phone calls that required Lubel to put her life on hold and rush to the hospital, and she learned to absorb and process the trauma she saw and heard in those emergency rooms.

‘A perfect storm in many ways’

Funding for rape crisis centers is not a new concern in Illinois. Back in 2008, centers braced for a possible $5.2 million hit to their budgets as part of larger state social services cuts proposed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Reports at the time said the disgraced former governor reversed course when he learned that the centers, then numbering 33, were expected to lose about $1.4 million in federal funding.

A few years later, the state passed a so-called skin tax on strip clubs — $3 per customer or an amount based on gross receipts — to help pay for sexual assault survivor services. That tax has consistently fallen well below the projected $1 million it was expected to generate, state records show.

By 2015, the state became embroiled in what would become a two-year budget impasse that caused disruptions to social service programs across Illinois, including crisis centers.

With state Department of Human Services funding holding relatively flat at a little over $7.5 million a year for the last 20 years, crisis centers historically lean on federal dollars to help pay for their operations.

One of those key sources is VOCA. Money from fines, penalties, special assessments and bond forfeitures in federal criminal cases is deposited into a fund, and a cap is set on how much can be distributed to states to pay for victim assistance programs, including rape crisis centers.

That cap has dropped nearly every year since 2018, records show, from about $4.4 billion down to $1.9 billion in fiscal 2023. Advocates such as Terri Poore, policy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, say the decline is the result of historically low deposits to the fund due, in part, to declining federal prosecutions.

“Historically, there would be bigger white-collar federal criminal cases resulting in big deposits in the fund,” she said. “Obviously no one wants white collar crime to happen. But if it happens, it’s good that crime victims benefit.”

All this has played out amid a recent uptick in the estimated number of people raped or sexually assaulted in the United States.

The VOCA fund’s distribution cap for the current fiscal year, which began in October, was proposed at $1.2 billion. Poore said that number has since climbed to around $1.3 billion. Still, that’s a loss of $600 million.

“Even before any of this happened, many of our programs had a waiting list for counseling services,” she said. “The infrastructure of sexual assault services in the country has not been where it needs to be, and yet there are these major cuts coming.”

Poore’s organization conducted a national survey of survivor programs last year and found that more than half lost staffing, while a third reported sizable wait lists for services such as counseling and support groups.

All are bracing for the possibility of further VOCA reductions next year.

“It really is a perfect storm in many ways,” she said. “With less support, with advocates really stretched and programs saying I might have to lose a satellite office or close our doors, that has a real emotional and economic impact on a community, in addition to individual people and their families.”

‘There’s just no wiggle room’

Early last year, the state’s sexual assault coalition learned that VOCA reductions would essentially slash crisis center funding in Illinois from nearly $19 million to about $9.5 million.

About 100 miles southwest of Chicago in Streator, VOCA cuts forced the crisis center Safe Journeys to lose a staff member who coordinated volunteers and managed cases for sexual violence survivors in LaSalle and Livingston counties.

Those case management duties have been spread among other staffers, said executive director Susan Bursztynsky, “but at this point in time, we can’t go out and advertise for volunteers or go to colleges and fairs seeking interns.”

Down in Danville, Survivor Resource Center Executive Director Marcie Sheridan said her organization lost a counselor and closed a satellite office in Georgetown, about 10 miles south of its main location. The recently secured $5 million federal grant from the state DHS prevented deeper cuts to its counseling services and medical advocacy work, Sheridan said.

“Right now, there’s just no wiggle room,” she said.

The state’s largest rape crisis center, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, lost a little over $1.8 million in VOCA funding this fiscal year, said Pezzillo, the agency’s vice president of clinical services.

The resulting cuts were painful: Three case managers, three clinical team members and nine medical advocates were let go. The number of hospitals the agency could serve fell from 21 to nine.

The losses could have been worse, Pezzillo said, if not for the agency’s efforts to find other grant dollars, including one awarded this month that she said should help YWCA build back some of its programs and staffing.

“It’s this almost constant search for new funding, which puts a strain on staff from a grant compliance perspective,” she said. “It’s more quarterly and fiscal reports and client stories, which is ultimately helping us do the work we all want to do. But it gets to be exhausting to be constantly in search of more funding when we’re worried about when the next ax is going to fall.”

That’s why survivor advocates, numbering well over 300, converged on Springfield last week. Their request: boost the state general fund budget for crisis centers to $20 million in the next fiscal year.

“It’s been much too long since we’ve received an increase in general revenue funding, and the time to change that is now,” Ward, the ICASA leader, told the crowd, many dressed in teal and holding signs that read: “Believe survivors,” “Sexual assault is everyone’s problem” or “Girls just wanna have fun-ding!”

Among the lawmakers who spoke at the rally, state Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat, said he was tired of people using sexual assault survivors and victims as talking points.

“I’m proud to say I’m not here to use this as a talking point, but put my money where my mouth is,” Peters said. “You all do some of the hardest work. You’re pushed to the brink. You have to be presented or live through trauma over and over again. It is our job to have your back.”

‘We’re all being overworked’

For Genesis Vasquez, that help can’t come fast enough.

Two years ago, she took a job as a citizenship and immigrant resources supervisor at Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a nonprofit community service organization in Pilsen. A year later, she shifted to the organization’s sexual assault survivor program.

At Vasquez’s organization, two staff positions were cut as a result of VOCA reductions, and her list of responsibilities grew to include overseeing medical advocacy, training, prevention education, outreach and intakes.

“We’re all being overworked,” she said. “We’re all doing multiple tasks. It makes it very hard because sometimes it feels like there’s not enough work hours to do what you’re supposed to finish.”

Like many who work in the field, Vasquez, 25, is also a survivor. Every time someone reaches out needing help, she risks reliving her own trauma.

“When you’re a survivor, it’s even harder because it feels like everything around you is surrounded by this topic,” she said. “It’s hard to get that break or ask for that help too.”

Recently, she said she’s found herself feeling irritable, depressed and burned out.

“I’m at a point where I really don’t know where to go from here,” she said. “I’m trying to work on self-care outside of work, not taking work home, not working through lunch, trying to have more clear boundaries. I feel like that’s very difficult. In what I’ve been through, I’m not a person who does well with boundaries.”

Over in Gurnee, Lubel has also struggled with that boundary. She’s tried to take time off after long stretches of work, but, she added, “there aren’t staff for the job.”

Volunteers have picked up more medical shifts, she said. Last month, of the nine calls Zacharias Center fielded about survivors at hospital emergency rooms, Lubel went to three.

On the wall next to her desk at the center’s Gurnee office, there’s a framed, handwritten letter. Nearly 20 years ago, Lubel was called to a hospital in Libertyville. An 18-year-old woman had been jogging on a bike path when she was raped by a convicted sex offender who then slashed her throat and left her for dead.

Even now, Lubel struggles to talk about what she saw in the emergency room that day. But she remembers being amazed by the family’s resilience and that the young woman, lying in a hospital bed with stitches in her throat, thought to ask her mom to call the paramedics and thank them for saving her life.

“I also remember coming home from that one and feeling awful,” Lubel said. “I didn’t do anything.”

About a month later, the woman’s parents sent Lubel the letter that hangs on her office wall.

“Your gentle kindness and wise counsel helped us find a strength beyond our own that day,” they wrote her. “It is a wonderful gift that you offer in a fearful time.”