The Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention (CVA) has been a place for students and USF community members to turn to in some of their most desperate times since its creation in 1992.
According to its website, “The Center for Victim Advocacy provides free and confidential services to USF students, faculty and staff. We serve men, women and people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expression who have experienced crime, violence or abuse on or off campus either recently or in the past.”
But over the past few years, the CVA has turned into an environment where it is easy for caseloads to pile up. Understaffing acts as a major stressor and internal unrest ensues, a former employee said.
The former employee, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that during their time working at the CVA, there were between two and three advocates and both the director and assistant director took on smaller caseloads as needed.
“When we were fully staffed at three full-time advocates, an assistant director, director and staff assistant, it was still a little bit stretched thin given what we were doing and how much we were doing,” the former employee said. “Over the years a lot of those roles and positions were merged or taken away completely — or people who were hired were not necessarily experienced, so they required a lot of training — that is definitely of concern and is not a good long-term solution to have one or two full-time advocates with no real additional support.”
During the time they worked there, the norm was for each advocate to have a caseload of approximately 40. That is ten cases higher than the industry standard.
This is something that current members of the administration say they are working to combat, but in reality that is still the present situation.
As it stands, Ruthann Atchley, associate vice president of Community Engagement and the individual serving as interim director of the CVA, said there are two full-time advocates and she is hoping to bring on a third. However, doing so is proving to be a challenge, because the university at-large is under a “hiring freeze” in the era of change in presidential leadership.
One of those advocates is also filling the role of interim assistant director for the CVA. Atchley said that is a result of the individual once hired to take that role experiencing some “life changes” and no longer being able to do so.
Caseloads are expected to increase in the fall and spring, given the amount of people on campus, possibly exceeding the 40-45 cases each person was responsible for over the summer.
The former employee said the current structure, of what they consider to be understaffing, is not a sustainable model and though the current advocates working in the CVA are certainly educated, they are “still human.”
“It’s a job where you have to be at your best,” the former employee said. “You have to be able to think clearly … my concern is that if you are only one of two people — and you do not have 20 years of experience — that could lead to a lot of burn out, a lot of potential things being missed. To be able to do what they are doing with two people is just not realistic.”
Getting the CVA back to a place of stability is one of the main goals for Atchley, who has served as interim director since November.
Since then, Atchley said the CVA has implemented an “on-call program” so that there are a number of individuals working on-call in the evening and weekend hours in an effort to ensure that the workload is not piled on any single person.
“We are getting more in keeping with what should be best practice … with the next advocate hire we are going to be getting much more in keeping with what the standard caseloads are for a university,” Atchley said.
A support system, in particular from members of the administration, is something the former employee said the CVA has been missing for quite a while.
“It is already a very hard job to do, so when you are trying to provide those services — which is your job — and you are met with challenge after challenge and lack of support, resources and advocacy for your department from upper administration, that is devastating,” the former employee said. “Regardless of what people want to think, the crimes are occurring. It’s not that if you take it away or just ignore it that it will stop, it’s just the opposite.”
One of those challenges put in the way of the CVA is the ongoing shift in leadership.
At one point in particular, the former employee said decisions were made that resulted in the CVA losing some of its independence.
Just one of the instances in which there was a change in leadership resulted in the CVA sharing a director with Student Outreach and Support (SOS), which is a department that provides crisis intervention services and mental health support, case management and resources for students. This decision was made while Dr. Rita DeBate was the associate vice president who oversaw the CVA and SOS.
A serious issue with this departmental overlap is that SOS has provided resources in the past to the alleged perpetrators of the crimes committed against the victims the CVA is serving.
In an interview with The Oracle, Vice President for Student Success Paul Dosal, who oversees the CVA and other departments such as Student Government, the Counseling Center and Campus Recreation said that he has a “very hazy recollection” of how long the two departments shared a director and what brought it about, given that this period of time was approximately two years ago.
When The Oracle requested an interview with DeBate to address such decisions and other alleged actions a number of times, university spokesperson Adam Freeman said DeBate was “not available” for an interview, without providing a reason.
There have been other issues in regards to DeBate’s judgment during her time in her role as associate vice president as well. This is made evident through a third-party, web-based hotline that allows members of the USF community to report issues such as misconduct, abuse and fraud in an anonymous manner called EthicsPoint.
The Oracle obtained records of nine closed EthicsPoint cases in which DeBate is accused of causing issue for direct and indirect reports since February 2017.
In EthicsPoint case number 674, DeBate is accused of “yelling in meetings, using profanity, and placing people on her ‘list’ when people do not align with her or present an opposing idea.”
Case number 601 alleges that DeBate is “verbally and mentally abusive to staff within her unit at all levels.”
The anonymous reporter of case 771 said that a “culture of fear has been established within our unit.”
“Bullied,” “devalued” and “threatened” are among some of the terms the reporter of case 775 said they have felt when interacting with DeBate.
The “impulsive decisions and this behavior will ultimately have a negative effect on students and their success,” the reporter of case 729 said.
Ultimately, the CVA was removed from DeBate’s supervision and Atchley was selected to fill the void to help spearhead the future of the center through methods like a Coordinated Community Response Team (CCRT).
The CCRT is a group of stakeholders responsible for shaping the future of the CVA and determining how it will function.
Although he credits DeBate with advocating for and laying the foundation of the CCRT, Dosal said the change in leadership was a decision he made after CVA stakeholders and Debate had seemingly reached an “impasse” because of their “differences of opinion” when making decisions about the center’s future.
“By making a change like that and bringing in fresh eyes in the form of Ruthann Atchley, plus bringing in the consultant and eventually forming the CCRT, we could more easily foster the more productive and campus-life discussion that we wanted to have,” Dosal said. “It was sort of the means of breaking out of an impasse and creating an environment in which we could have what has turned out to be a lengthy but productive discussion.”
As it stands, the CCRT has roughly 50 members from all three of USF’s campuses as well as representation from the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the University Police Department, related student organizations and other entities.
And it is not going anywhere anytime soon.
“(The CCRT) will continue to exist forever,” Atchley said. “But its role will probably move to more of an oversight and support role rather than this visioning role that it is serving right now.”
Atchley said that the CCRT has the extensive representation that it does because the CVA is a department that works closely with a number of others on campus and different community organizations as well.
“… The conversation that I have with my advocates more often than not is about the support they are getting from Academic Advocacy … most of our victims, their number one concern is to continue to process toward graduation, so our job is really around helping them achieve their academic success,” Atchley said. “We are not mental health counselors, we do not try to help with that. We partner with them, the primary service we are providing is helping them stay on their academic path.”
However, for Atchley, despite the past speedbumps of understaffing and a failure to have a meeting of the minds, she considers the path of the CVA moving forward to be in an upward trajectory.
“We are moving to a much more stable place as far as staffing and support are needed in that current space,” Atchley said. “But that is sort of to keep us going with the current model right now. What the CCRT is going to be doing is sort of answering for us a question of, ‘What should we become?”
When it comes to the issues the anonymous source is hoping will improve, it all comes down to respecting difference of opinion.
“What I am hoping is, as the university enters new leadership, that there will be an investment into taking everyone’s view into consideration,” the source said. “There are many different ways to reach goals for a university and I think the strength in accomplishing those goals are looking at the diversity in approaches and the diversity of people that get involved in helping to make these solutions. I think that the university would be a lot stronger in its endeavors if it respects opinions.”