The Office of Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention (OVAVP) at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has received a two-year grant to fund the expansion of the department to better provide immediate assistance to those in need. The College Campus Initiative grant is funded by Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and distributed by the Office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division. OVAVP works with students, staff, faculty and community partners to facilitate services for victims and survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence. All services provided by OVAVP are free and confidential. Services include:
Educational activities and prevention programs.
Support services, such as weekly support groups.
A critical voice for promoting policies to destigmatize members of the campus community who identify as survivors or victims of violence.
Dr. Cynthia Jones, director of OVAVP and associate professor of philosophy, said that through this grant, the OVAVP would be able to provide more services and employ a full-time program coordinator in Brownsville. “Before, one of us had to drive there if we had an outcry, which is not a quick drive,” Jones said. Additionally, this grant will also allow the office to hire an in-house licensed counselor. “Students often have to wait for counseling services on and off campuses,” she said. “So, this gives our clients direct access to a counselor that will be housed in our office.” The grant will also fund graduate assistants in counseling and in academic advising, who can also provide confidential services if a student needs help to change their schedule if they are dealing with the aftermath of violence. The two-year grant totals $812,000 and will run thru 2020. OVAVP is the only office at UTRGV that provides confidential support to victims of violence without having to file a police report. “Most of our clients, even though we would like for them to file reports, most of them do not wish to file police reports,” Jones said. “So, our office allows students, faculty and staff to own their information and make the decision of whether or not they want to report. They can talk to us without having to report.” OVAVP works with Friendship of Women in Brownsville, the Family Crisis Center in Harlingen and Mujeres Unidas in McAllen, which are organizations that provide resources in the Valley to victims of violence.
“We try to provide emergency shelter,” Jones said. “We purchased a dorm room for emergency housing, so if a student needs housing from a violent situation, we can provide that on campus.” OVAVP deals with all types of violence, not only domestic. And UTRGV students, faculty and staff can utilize the office for confidential support, as needed. “Currently, we are the only confidential resource on campus for faculty and staff,” Jones said. Additionally, faculty use the center as a resource when students outcry to the faculty directly, either in person, via email, etc. Faculty members, by law, must report certain incidents of violence under Title IX legislation. “I am able to help that faculty member do what they need to do to fulfill university requirements and get the student help,” Jones said. “You would be surprised how frequently students report to faculty. We frequently have faculty members walk a student over here.” While it is mainly women subjected to sexual assault, date assault and domestic violence, men certainly can face sexual assault but are less likely to come forward because of the fear of stigma. One in four women will be affected by violent situations while they’re in college, which does not account for women who are assaulted before or after college, Jones said. The office does not have to report incidents of violence to authorities, whereas a faculty member does. This empowers the victim to freely decide how they wish to proceed with their incident and educates them properly on what their options are. Currently, assault survivors are speaking out more than ever, raising awareness of the problem. “With the occurrence of #MeToo, and things like the Kavanaugh hearings, more people ARE coming forward and talking about their experiences as victims and survivors,” Jones said. Still, many won’t report because they are not prepared to deal with the aftermath, and some may never be ready. OVAVP is prepared to help victims on the next steps after coming forward. “We are advocates to help people with safety planning,” Jones said. “We know that advocacy works to help people, whether or not they want to report. It’s great if they want to press charges or if they just want to talk about what happened to them. That, too, can be very empowering for people.” The UTRGV OVAVP is located on the Edinburg Campus at ELCTR 156, and in Brownville off campus at BNOB 106, the former Book Bee located on 2188 East Jackson Street. For more information, email the office at email@example.com or call, (956) 882-8282 in Brownsville and (956) 665-8287 in Edinburg.