Agency serving sexual assault survivors in McHenry, Cook counties seeks funding amid federal cuts
On St. Patrick's Day weekend 2007, a then 26-year-old woman said she was asleep in her bed at home in Machesney Park when she was sexually assaulted by a man who came into her bedroom.
The assault, she said, launched her into a frightening and confusing world of police interviews, medical examinations, rape kits, attorneys, courtroom hearings and a jury trial in which she testified before strangers -- including the mother of her alleged attacker. He was found not guilty.
Rebecca Plascencia, now 41 and living in Chicago, gives credit for her survival to ongoing guidance, legal and mental health counseling and an advocate from the Northwest Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or NWCASA.
The Northwest Herald does not typically name the victims of sexual assaults, but Plascencia agreed for her name to be used in this article.
The advocate showed up at the hospital after she was attacked and helped get her through the sexual assault examination, police interviews and evidence collection at her home. In the years that followed, Plascencia received legal and emotional counseling and an advocate who remained by her side.
"I was pretty naive prior to that," she said.
Plascencia, a mother of two young boys, still receives support today when needed from the agency where she now works as deputy director.
Her story is one of thousands of sexual assault survivors, including men, women, children younger than 5 and adults older than 65, served by the Arlington Heights-based agency.
The agency serves people in northwest Cook County as well as McHenry County through a satellite care center in McHenry. It also has an office in Evanston.
But, with funding being cut to such agencies -- from $18.8 million to just $9.5 million for fiscal year 2024, according to the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault -- many will be left on waiting lists, left to handle such traumatic, life-altering events on their own, said Carrie Estrada, executive director at the Northwest Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The agency, which offers its services for free, is one of 30 rape crisis centers in Illinois governed by ICASA. NWCASA survives mainly on federal grant dollars from the federal Victims of Crime Act funneled through ICASA, Estrada said.
Locally, NWCASA receives dollars through a "patchwork" of sources, including municipalities, townships and mental health boards, Estrada said.
"A majority of us have been working understaffed already and so to cut more is unfathomable and dangerous," Estrada said.
She noted NWCASA advocates have responded to 223 hospital calls and 307 crisis calls on the agency's 24/7 hotline from July 1, 2022 through Jan. 31, the first half of fiscal 2023.
Funding to help sexual assault survivors is in great need, Estrada said. Many are either unaware of that fact, or do not want to fund it because of the stigma surrounding sexual assault.
"We provide comprehensive sexual assault services to a very large geographic area with 1.3 million residents spanning 45 miles and two different counties," Estrada said. "This includes three judicial court systems, 54 different police municipalities (and) 11 area hospitals."
Leonetta Rizzi, executive director of the McHenry County Mental Health Board, agrees there is a lack of funding for such agencies. She said although the board provides some funding to the agency, it is "minimal compared to what is needed."
"We do not have the capacity to support the funding that has been cut as we have been only able to flat fund most all of our current providers over the past several years due to lack of (Mental Health Board) budget as it is," Rizzi said. "Research has shown that traumatic experiences are associated with both behavioral health as well as chronic physical health conditions, which is why the (Mental Health Board) believes it's important to support the CARE Center's work not only in handling these difficult situations when they occur, but also as part of prevention efforts in giving them the resources they need today in being resilient so that further problems are avoided."
Estrada said not only is she concerned for the survivors, but for her team that works closely with them and could suffer "vicarious trauma."
"We can't just slash people and keep running at the same rate we are, and we can't keep providing the same level of service with less staff," she said. "The work we do is so dangerous. If you are over exposing people to trauma, the helper can (experience) traumatic symptoms. We can't afford to lose people. This is not a regular job."
Plascencia said she and other staff meet monthly for a "healing circle" to debrief and process what they are hearing. The advocates have to steward the trauma they experience through their work. The trauma they are taking on doesn't only come from the conversations with the survivors but it is as if "the trauma is seeped into the walls," she said.
Through the agency Plascencia has worked with people from all socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who have been assaulted in various scenarios. Stories include one woman who was grabbed off her front porch and assaulted by a stranger, domestic violence cases involving sexual assaults within marriages, and sexual assaults involving children younger than 2 years old, committed by a person they knew and should have been able to trust.
Estrada added, people of color and those who identify with the LGBTQ community are "disproportionately" affected by sexual violence at higher rates.
McHenry County Assistant State's Attorney Randi Freese said her office, which has two victim and witness coordinators on staff, also refers people to NWCASA.
Before recent cuts, Freese said, people already had been on waiting lists, which is detrimental to their overall healing and well-being.
"There is no way to describe what our two coordinators do," she said. "They are the link between the court system and the victims."
But there are only two working in the courthouse, making NWCASA a crucial resource for sexual assault survivors, she said.
"Northwest CASA's services are imperative to victims' healing throughout the judicial process and beyond," Freese said.
Estrada said she is seeking all avenues to increase funding for the "vital" services the agency is providing, including speaking with legislators and community groups and hosting special events. She strives to get people to understand that this is "highly specialized."
"Because healing from sexual violence is so nuanced, a counselor not fully competent in sexual violence treatment can actually cause more harm through uninformed victim blaming," Estrada said.
Since 1998, when the agency began reporting to a statewide database, it has served 4,825 clients in its advocacy program and 2,644 clients in its counseling program. In fiscal 2022, the agency provided 240 clients -- 30% under 18 years old -- with specialized "trauma-based" counseling and medical and legal advocacy.
Twenty-eight of their clients served were boys and girls under the age of 5, 118 were between ages 6 and 17 and 330 clients were between ages 18 and 64, statistics show.
Information is available at nwcasa.org. The McHenry County crisis hotline is (800) 892-8900 and the Cook County hotline is (888) 802-8890.