IOWA CITY — Talking about sexual assault can be hard for victims. Traumatic. Even impossible.
University of Iowa law enforcement officers, health care providers, and victim advocates know that. They say they’ve seen it time after time.
And they wanted to help — both by comforting victims and making it easier for them to report criminal behavior.
“We wanted to create a place where survivors can feel more comfortable,” said Dave Visin, interim assistant vice president and director of UI Public Safety.
So UI police partnered with several groups on campus, including the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, to create Johnson County’s first “soft space.” The room was designed for police interviews with sexual assault victims, but it strikes a sharp contrast to the sterile interview room used in previous years with bare walls, two office chairs, and a small round table with a single box of Kleenex.
The new “soft space” offers dimmed lighting, wide soft rocking chairs, earth-toned wall paint and carpet, and a “kitchen table” – “to encourage conversation.”
A small indoor fountain provides white noise as a backdrop, and a basket full of snacks, stress balls, and pipe cleaners are available for victims needing something to fidget with. Doing so can help them release anxiety, according to Jennifer Carlson, executive director of RVAP — a sexual assault victim advocate and prevention agency that serves the UI campus along with Johnson, Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Lee, Washington, and Van Buren counties.
The room also offers weighted blankets, which Carlson said have been proven to ease anxiety. A mural covering the wall reads, “Start By Believing,” alluding to a national public awareness campaign aimed at encouraging communities to believe survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.
UI police started using the room last week on Tuesday — for several victims who reported being groped outside the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Carlson said the space is unique — and not just for Johnson County. Few police departments nationally have similar facilities for adult victims, according to Carlson.
The UI room could get use beyond sex assault victims, she said. For example, police officers and investigators also could take advantage of the relaxing space from time to time.
“This could be a great resource for officers who need to decompress after a particularly hard case,” Carlson said.
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness peaked in on the new room Friday and said she’d like to use it to relax victims — especially children — before they testify for a deposition or at trial.
“This is much nicer than anything we have at the court house,” Lyness said.
The university has ramped up its response to sexual violence in recent years, and former UI President Sally Mason in the spring debuted a six-point plan after hundreds protested the university’s lack of attention to the issue.
That plan vowed to crack down on offenders, increase support for survivors, improve prevention and education on campus, increase funding for services, and better communication. As a result, the university has created a student advisory committee, hired more support staff, added resources for late-night rides, changed the language in campuswide warnings, and expelled at least two perpetrators.
Since Aug. 15, the university’s Office of the Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator has taken 37 reports of sexual assault — including cases that occurred off campus, took place before a student enrolled at Iowa, or would not rise to the level of a crime.
UI police have taken 19 sexual assault reports for all of 2015 to date — including 10 forcible fondling reports, six cases of forcible rape, one forcible sodomy report, and two that were unfounded.
Officers have warned the UI community of about nine reports of sexual violence on campus so far this semester.