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Proposed budget diverts funds for Florida rape crisis centers

Her attacker was someone she knew.

She was at a friend's party, the day before Thanksgiving. She awoke the next morning with a hangover, feeling bruised and violated.

Her story spills out in bits and pieces to Misti Birky, a therapist at Pinellas County's rape crisis center. "I feel betrayed," the 26-year-old woman says. "I never thought I wouldn't be safe there."

The women are huddled in a small, sparsely furnished room, in space borrowed from the Family Services Center on 22nd Avenue S in St. Petersburg. It's here that Birky tries to help rape victims get past their hurt.

She escorts victims to medical exams, or to court to face their attackers. "I let people know if they don't have anyone to go with them, I can," says Birky, a licensed clinical social worker.

And it's all free of charge.

As the state grapples with an impending shortfall of up to $4-billion for next year's budget, the kind of help that Birky provides could get axed.

The state Health Department's proposed 2009 budget eliminates funding for the state's 31 rape crisis centers. The cut, which equates to about $2-million, could leave thousands of sexual assault victims without free counseling services.

In 2007, rape crisis centers statewide served 8,000 new victims and 23,000 victims who were already receiving services.

The centers largely are funded through a special trust established in 2003. It is fueled by a $150 fine levied on people convicted of violent crimes. Since its inception, the rape crisis fund has collected about $6.7-million.

Facing shortfalls, lawmakers are now reviewing each of the state's trust funds — including the rape crisis fund — and could tap them to balance next year's budget.

"It's sad that anything has to be put on the table," says Terry Walters, a budget bureau chief for the Department of Health. "But of course, if you look at the proposal for all our reductions, this isn't the only thing. There's a lot out there."

• • •

Danielle, a 22-year-old with red hair who agreed that her first name be used, spells out "SURVIVOR" in yellow puff paint down the right leg of a pair of ripped jeans.

"It's the buzzword," she quips. "You're not a victim — you're a survivor."

Birky, the therapist, is getting Danielle to paint the jeans she wore the night of her attack. Art can often help victims better express themselves and find healing.

It was late September when Danielle agreed to go camping with a girlfriend, and a male friend of the girlfriend's. Sometime that night, inside the tent, he put his hand up her shirt. When she pushed him away, he placed his hand between her legs. She dug her nails into his palm and forced his hand away.

The next morning, he denied the touching happened. But the experience stayed with Danielle.

"I didn't want to be naked," she says. "So to shower I put on a bathing suit."

A few days after her assault, Danielle called the rape crisis hotline, which she'd found online. She talked to a counselor for two hours in the middle-of-the-night call.

She now sees Birky on a regular basis.

Above one knee she paints the word: torn. Above the other: apart.

Danielle tried to press charges against the man who assaulted her, but couldn't for lack of evidence, she said police told her.

"I don't think I would have survived it if I hadn't come here," the St. Petersburg woman confides.

"It's not something any woman should have to go through alone."

Sexual assault victims have a higher suicide rate, are more prone to addictions and often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say. Counseling helps, say rape crisis center advocates, who are worried about what could happen if their funding goes away.

"We see a sexual assault victim a day," says David Braughton, chief executive officer of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which provides rape counseling services. "This is just not a one-time traumatic experience. This is something that haunts them for the rest of their life."

Terri Poore, director of public affairs for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, is more than worried.

"Most of the rape crisis centers are a shoestring agency anyway," Poore says. "After the cuts, if the advocates go, there's really nothing left."

If the trust fund is eliminated, Braughton said, his center would look to grants to fill the gap. Some local centers aren't as optimistic.

"There will be no services in Pasco County for victims of sexual assault available free of charge in the county," says Penny Morrill, chief executive officer for Sunrise of Pasco County Inc., the county rape crisis center.

• • •

Back in Birky's office, the young woman attacked at her friend's party talks about how difficult it is to focus on everyday tasks. She works at an upscale salon in St. Petersburg.

In the middle of hair color discussions, she says, she'll suddenly be hit with flashbacks from her attack. She has not pressed charges against her attacker, for fear of rehashing the situation in a courtroom.

"I don't have the energy to go through that," she says.

Birky suggests journaling, to help get the images and thoughts out of her head. "Your brain will be able to say 'Okay, I wrote it down, I don't have to think about it,' " Birky says.

It is one of six free sessions she will have with Birky. After that, rape crisis therapists can refer clients to a support group or to other counseling programs, if needed.

The young woman wishes more people would open up about their experiences. But she understands their apprehensions.

"They don't know what to expect, they don't want somebody judging them," she says. "They don't want to deal with it. I'm glad I'm dealing with it."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at or (727)-893-8828.

Bay area centers

. Crisis Center

of Tampa Bay

Number of victims served 2007-08: 321.

Program budget:


Amount funded through state: $76,000.

Number of counselors: 30.

Hotline: Dial 211.

. Family Service Centers (Pinellas County)

Number of victims served 2007-08: 141.

Program budget: $841,739.

Amount funded through state: $138,394.

Number of counselors: 14.

Hotline: (727) 530-7273.

. Sunrise of Pasco County

Number of victims served 2007-08: 335.

Program budget: $112,000.

Amount funded through state: $28,000.

Number of counselors: Two.

Hotline: (352) 521-3120.

. Dawn Center

of Hernando County

Number of victims served 2007-08: 20.

Program budget: $21,000.

Amount funded through state: $21,000, but pays 50 percent for sexual violence program cost.

Number of counselors: One.

Hotline: (352) 799-0657.

Proposed budget diverts funds for Florida rape crisis centers 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 10:15pm]
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