Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center advocates always ready

By Charlotte Jenkins, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 12, 2013

For 168 consecutive hours at a time, a full week, Anne Huhman doesn’t let a 2005 black flip phone out of her sight. Huhman is the program manager for education and prevention at the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, and one of only five people who currently handle the crisis hotline.

Huhman and three others serve as advocates in the SAPAC office, where survivors of trauma can receive support, counseling and resources for various issues. SAPAC staff also educate students about sexual assault to create a campus environment focused on prevention.

The center was founded in 1986 after University students protested the lack of a rape crisis center on campus.

Huhman became an advocate for survivors of sexual or domestic violence, which culminated in her employment at SAPAC.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2002, Huhman took a job at Underground Railroad, Inc., a domestic violence shelter in Saginaw, Mich. There, she worked with schools and juvenile detention centers and gained experience educating youth about sexual assault and harassment, dating violence, stalking and healthy relationships, while working with survivors.

In 2004, Huhman entered the University’s School of Social Work and began her work at SAPAC for her field placement. She stayed on at SAPAC post-graduation and has been in her current position for six years.

Huhman said the crisis line is there to support a person, no matter what they need or when they need it. She said it’s very common for advocates to get phone calls at 3 a.m. while they’re on shift.

“If the phone rings, we drop everything we are doing to ensure we give attention to whoever is on the line,” Huhman said. “It could be a survivor or a friend or a family member, or really anyone in the community.”

Advocate Heather Colohan, SAPAC’s program manager for community outreach and systems advocacy, said advocacy work is especially relevant on college campuses.

Colohan described a recent call from a student who was concerned for her friend, who had been drinking. The friend was in a room alone with a male student, and the caller was concerned that she would be asked to engage in sexual activity. If the friend was intoxicated, she may have been incapable of giving consent.

Colohan talked the caller through the situation, instructing her to distract the perpetrator by asking one of his friends to call him from the room to do him a favor, so that the caller could remove her friend from the situation.

“It felt really good to have my training and my education about prevention come to fruition,” Colohan said. “You know that what we’re trying to spread is not falling on deaf ears.”

At the SAPAC office, there is always a member of the professional staff on call.

Typically one to two survivors come into the SAPAC office per week. There is a noticeable increase in visits when freshman come to campus in the fall. Huhman attributes this to the vulnerability of new students on campus, when first-year students are especially eager to make friends and may be taken advantage of more easily.

For crisis-line calls, advocates are often sent to residence halls or University Hospital.

SAPAC dispatches an advocate to the hospital if a survivor discloses in the emergency room that he or she has been sexually assaulted and is a student, faculty or staff member at the University. Following initial contact, the SAPAC advocate meets with the social worker assigned by the hospital and police investigators.

Colohan said her role is to help the survivor make informed decisions and that it’s okay to not have an answer to every question that might be asked of them.

After the initial meeting, whether that takes place in the SAPAC office, the hospital or a residence hall, SAPAC typically sends a follow up e-mail that informs survivors of other resources.

The Peer-Led Support Group is one of those resources. On Wednesday nights, LSA senior Molly Blakowski and School of Public Health student Merrybelle Guo facilitate the support group, which is a support group structured around self-care and ways to reduce anxiety.

Three people usually come to the meetings each week, but during the winter semester attendance is expected to rise to five or six. Blakowski emphasized that the forum is intended to support survivors, but not replace therapy.

“I’m a geochemist; I’m not a therapist,” Blakowski said. “I mostly want you to feel that you can manage your stress and that you have support.”

Blakowski said being in a group with fellow students creates commonalities that distinguish the Peer-Led Support Group from the rest of the organization, which is often focus on support from professional staff.

The professional staff may continue to have a relationship with survivors they have advocated for, and may continue to advocate if a survivor needs help. This sometimes takes the form of academic advocacy, where SAPAC can contact a professor if a survivor needs extra time for an assignment because they are recovering from trauma, or if a survivor needs to take an exam in a different room because the alleged perpetrator is in the class.

LSA senior Meghana Kulkarni, co-coordinator of the Men’s Activism program for SAPAC, said the professional staff of SAPAC does one of the most important jobs on campus.

“Even in Ann Arbor, which is a very liberal campus, our community is still very victim-blaming,” Kulkarni said. “Having as much support for survivors where people tell them, ‘This is not your fault, even though you were drinking, this should not have happened to you,’ these kinds of affirmations are really beneficial.”

Though it’s her job, Colohan said advocacy work is a rewarding experience.

“To be the first person to tell them that they did not deserve what happened to them is pretty amazing,” Colohan said. “You might be the only person in the survivor’s life who is providing that unconditional support.”