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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 7, 2010

Albany County’s crime victim center offers education, counseling, and advocacy

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — For 35 years, victims of violent crime, including rape, have been helped by Albany County. Although the county executive’s budget for next year won’t be released until Friday, concerns have been raised about funding for the county’s Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls about it,” said Mary Duryea, communications director at the Albany County Executive’s Office. Duryea said that, until Michael Breslin’s budget is released, specifics about funding for any particular department won’t be discussed.

Funding for the center has increased steadily over the last dozen years from $591,192 in 1998 to just under a million dollars this year — about half of it from the county and the other half from state and federal grants.

Any agencies funded through grants — included rape centers across New York— are concerned about their funding because of the state’s fiscal crisis, said the center‘s director, Karen Ziegler.

“The state of New York is pretty desperate right now,” she said.

Her center, for example, currently has a grant from the state Department of Health for $60,600 that, Ziegler said, is to be cut to $55,000 for next year, and she just found out this week may be cut another 1.1 percent.

A grassroots volunteer group called AWARE, for Albany Women Against Rape, started a rape crisis center here in 1974. The next year, the county created the Albany County Rape Crisis Center. It has grown over the years and is now called the Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center. Thirty years ago, the center had a staff of a director, two counselors and a secretary. It now has 13 staff  members.

A center supporter, Janice Irwin, has sent letters to local town boards, asking for support for the center as the county works out a budget for next year. Several supporters also spoke to the Albany County Legislature last month about the importance of keeping the center fully staffed.

Still a stigma

When Albany’s center was founded in the mid-1970s, Ziegler said, people were becoming aware that rape is a crime. “There is still a stigma attached,” she said. “We still see people who don’t report to the police….

“A lot of times, college women don’t want their parents to know. They’re afraid they’ll be told to come home.”

The center works closely with five area colleges — the University at Albany, Siena, The College of Saint Rose, Sage, and Albany Law School — and is available for sessions at other colleges.

Twenty to 30 percent of those seeking counseling are college students and a large percentage of those being accompanied to emergency rooms are college students, Ziegler said.

The center works with three hospitals in Albany County — St. Peter’s, Albany Medical Center, and Albany Memorial.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that one out of six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and college-age women are four times more likely than any other age group to be sexually assaulted.

About 10 percent of rape victims who go to the emergency room press charges, Ziegler said. Many don’t get that far. Only about 10 percent of women who are raped go to a hospital, she said.

A visit to the emergency room can take four, six, or eight hours, said Ziegler. “And the exam itself is pretty invasive,” she said. Women will go sometimes if they’re afraid of pregnancy or of sexually transmitted diseases.

Asked how many rapes go unreported, Ziegler said she has no way of knowing but anecdotal information indicates the numbers are large. In therapy sessions, she said, its not uncommon for a woman to say she was sexually assaulted earlier in her life but never sought help.

According to FBI estimates, only 37 percent of rapes are reported, and statistics from the United States Justice Department are even lower — just 26 percent of all rapes or attempted rapes are reported to police.

The Albany center’s emphasis is on prevention through education.  “Our real goal is to prevent assault through education — educating young men, educating the community,” she said. Ziegler gave an example of behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated: “Getting a woman drunk is not foreplay,” she said.

Four programs

The center offers four different programs — counseling for victims of crime, court advocacy, educational programs, and a program to train volunteers.

The counseling, Ziegler stresses, is free and confidential. It can be for victims of robbery, stalking, teen dating violence, or those affected by a murder.

Services are available to anyone who has experienced a violent crime or who has been affected by someone else’s assault or murder.

“It can be a roommate, a sibling, a parent, or a child,” said Ziegler.

Currently, four grants support the center’s counseling services: one from the Office of Victim Services, one from the Department of Health, and two from the Division of Criminal Justice Service — one for domestic violence and the other for training law enforcement and court personnel.

This last grant has broadened the center’s educational focus from the usual trips to local schools, colleges, or community organizations to also includes educating court personnel such as clerks, public defenders, assistant district attorneys, and judges.

On training police officers, Ziegler said, “We understand they need to do certain things.” But, she said, when investigating an assault, police can ask questions in a way that is healing not traumatizing.

Fire department and rescue squad workers are also being trained on how to approach a victim and ask questions.

“We are in every court in Albany County,” said Ziegler. Criminal justice advocacy is provided in Guilderland Town Court among others.

Ziegler explained that state law requires district attorneys to contact crime victims to educate them. “We call every crime victim and tell them their rights,” she said, adding, “No one has to accept our services.”

The center acts as a liaison for victims with medical issues, housing issues, or social service issues. It also acts as a liaison to the district attorney’s office. But, Ziegler stressed, “We’re not prosecution based. We’re witness based.”

About the center’s education program, Ziegler said, “If there are two people in a room, we’ll show up.”

Sessions are tailored for the group that will be learning. For example, teens and their parents are taught about cyber bullying, sexting, and computer safety.

The National Guard recently asked the center to do training, Ziegler said and center staff gave an overview of the trauma caused by sexual assault.

The fourth program, training volunteers, is essential for the running of the other three programs.

“We couldn’t function without our volunteers,” said Ziegler.

Twenty to 30 volunteers, many of them college students, staff the hotline, working in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Department of Health requires 40 hours of specific training for the hotline volunteers.

“We’re always looking for community based volunteers,” said Ziegler.

The center uses six to eight court volunteers and interns that are shared with the district attorney’s office. Currently, there’s a waiting list for those volunteer jobs.

The center also uses a half dozen office volunteers.


Ziegler came to her job as the center’s director in March of 2006 after working in a mental health clinic, treating trauma victims. She said it was a “huge surprise” and a “wonderful honor” when Breslin recommended her for the post.

“We serve all victims,” she said.

Ziegler describes the work as challenging and says it can be a “spiritual journey” for those who do it. “We’re honored by people who choose this work,” she said.

Deputy Director Debra Schramek coordinates the work of the volunteers, recruiting them and organizing the training sessions. She has been with the center for 28 years.

Ziegler described Schramek as “a mother of the Albany County movement,” and said Schramek was interested in the retirement incentive. “If she elects to do that, she’s earned it,” Ziegler said. “That may change our dynamics.”

The center also employs a supervisor, three clinicians, four case workers, one prevention educator, and two support staff for a total of 13.

“I feel we are adequately staffed,” said Ziegler. “We keep very busy,” she added.

 “We are committed to providing our four core services, and I think Mr. Breslin is committed, too,” said Ziegler.

“We’d love more community involvement,” she concluded. “Give us a call. Go to our website. We have a lot of links on there. If people have need of our services, they should contact us. It’s free and confidential…. We’ll create something around their needs.”

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