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The Center for Victim Advocacy is in need of a “critical mass” of new employees

Currently, The Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention is operating with just one advocate and one violence prevention expert. ORACLE PHOTO/JESSE STOKES

The Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, as it is known now, was in trouble of being changed in the spring. However, now that it has been agreed on that the purpose and goals of the center will remain as they were, one issue still persists: hiring a staff.

The fear of change came in September when a job listing was posted on Indeed advertising for an open position for “Assistant Director – Victim Assistance and Violence Prevention.”

This sparked an outcry from a number of students and faculty members alike who were advocating for the “advocate” title.

Now, Chris Ponticelli, who is the chair of the Women’s Status Committee and is helping lead the search for the assistant director for the center, said the back-and-forth title change has presented issues of its own.

“We ran into a legal issue,” Ponticelli said. “We have to hire under that title of ‘Victim Assistance and Violence Prevention.’ All of the candidates that came in were made clear that this was a center for advocacy. So, I think what the plan is that the assistant director will work more on the side of prevention and then when the director comes in they will be more on the side of advocacy.”

According to Ponticelli, the center is currently operating with just a single advocate and one violence prevention specialist.

Step one of the hiring phase is filling the assistant director role, according to Ruthann Atchley, USF’s associate vice president of Community Engagement, who is also serving as the interim director for the center.

“We need a critical mass of bodies and we need some leadership in that unit,” Atchley said. “We recognize that serving victims of all crime that comes to that office is a fundamental need that we have to fill immediately.”

Atchley said the purpose of filling the assistant director role first is to give time to define what exactly the job description would look like for the director of the center.

She added that finding the balance between filling the position with the right person and determining what their role will be and doing so quickly is not an easy task.

“It is such a challenge because there is a piece of me that wants to have all of this already in place six months ago because that is what students deserve, but I also want to do it right,” Atchley said. “It is a push and pull between these two forces of building something that is sustainable and truly representing the community’s needs, but at the same time, getting it done in a way that we can serve students now.”

According to Atchley, there have been a couple of other snags in the process of detailing how the center will operate — notably: the federal government shutdown and the state-mandated consolidation of USF’s three campuses into one.

“Quite honestly, with the shutdown of the federal government, things like background checks — which we have to go through at a pretty high level to bring somebody in to do this kind of work — have slowed,” Atchley said.

Atchley said because of these processes and circumstances, a prospective advocate they are trying to hire — who will be brought on under a six-month appointment — has been on hold for six weeks and still has not received their offer letter.

In terms of consolidation, the requirements include “equitable resources” on all three campuses.

“Our accreditation process require that we provide equitable service to all USF students, regardless of what campus,” Atchley said. “We are absolutely in conversation with the folks of St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee to assess where we are — and quite honestly, we are as spotty on those campuses as we are on ours — we have a lot of work to do to create service throughout. We will not remain an accredited university if we don’t do that. It is not an if, it is a when.”

Atchley said that the troubles of not having a full staff are beginning to show, but she and her team are working to overcome the challenges.

“We have new cases every week,” Atchley said. “So, it is absolutely critical that we keep the doors open to serve students, faculty and staff. I think we are managing that balancing act, but it is taking a toll.

“Everyone is very tired.”

For Ponticelli, staying optimistic is the key.

“I have no reason not to believe that we are going to bring the center back up, not just to working capacity, but that it will be one of the excellent advocacy centers in the country,” Ponticelli said.