Editors Note: Stretched Thin is an ongoing series of interviews with those managing social service agencies through an unprecedented state budget stalemate.
It's getting harder for rape victims to obtain free services in McLean County.
Despite signed contracts with the state, the Stepping Stones Rape Crisis program at the McLean County YWCA is operating with only half its annual $150,000 budget. Stepping Stones has contracts with the state to provide rape prevention classes, a 24-hour hotline, accompaniment to the hospital, and support throughout the prosecution of a case.
The YWCA's Hilary Pacha said Stepping Stones lacked the funds to help one recent rape victim.
Pacha said the woman was afraid to return to the apartment where the rape occurred. Normally, Stepping Stones has funds to help victims who request find temporary lodging, such as a hotel room, if they request it after an incident.
"Typically what we would do is help them find a new place to live so they could feel safe. Unfortunately without the money, we had to look at her and tell her, I'm sorry we're are not able to do that. So she had to go home to the place where was just assaulted and stay there by herself," Pacha said.
Stepping Stones' services are often the only place low income residents who have been sexually assaulted can turn for help, Pacha said. She said the cutbacks in service are being met with "a lot of sadness tears and frustration."
Stepping Stones recently had to cut back on the number of rape prevention programs it offers in schools and at other community venues.
Pacha said sexual assault is far more prevalent than many in the community believe and deserves the attention of the governor and the state legislature.
"When it comes to sexual assault I'm not sure how you can not see this as important. It affects everybody whether they know if or not. If you look at the statistics, one in three women or one in seven men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. It is either affecting you personally or indirectly if you know somebody who has been sexually assaulted, whether they disclose it to you or not," Pacha said.
Pacha also announced that the YWCA is starting and education program aimed at potential jurors in order to insure greater fairness in sexual assault trials. Pacha said police and prosecutors are willing to bring rape cases to trial, but those cases often end in acquittal because jurors can harbor stereotypes about the crime.
"Those 12 jurors sitting there listening, it's hard for those people to put themselves in the shoes of somebody else when you have just two people in a room where a crime has occurred and there are no witnesses, so they draw on their own biases and the culture they live in," Pacha said.
Pacha says Stepping Stones hopes to conduct these seminars at local corporations, such as State Farm and Country Financial, that employ large numbers of people who could make up potential pools of jurors. She says a higher number of guilty verdicts will send a message that rape will not be tolerated in the community.
The YWCA is also looking for volunteers to train as rape crisis counselors to offset its anticipated cutbacks in paid staff.