Staffing Columbia’s Rape Crisis Center @ Sexual Violence Response: Important Data, Analysis and Reflections on Trauma-Informed Best Practices

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Suzanne B. Goldberg, Executive Vice President for University Life

In recent months, some students have urged that Columbia’s rape crisis center, run by Sexual Violence response, be staffed 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  I spoke with Suraiya Baluch, Interim Director of Sexual Violence Response, who shared this response:

SVR’s professional survivor advocates are available 24-hours/7 days a week/365 days a year for immediate crisis counseling, accompaniment to on and off-campus resources including the hospital, NYPD, District Attorney’s office, courts, medical services, etc.  In short, SVR offers comprehensive rape crisis services. We have great concern that the current inaccurate representation that SVR does not offer 24-hour services is harmful to survivors seeking support.  To misrepresent what SVR offers also is a disservice to the many student activists, student peer counselors and advocates who helped create, build and staff Columbia’s Rape Crisis Center for the past 24 years.

Additionally, SVR has responded to demands for longer hours in the past. During the 2014-2015 academic year SVR was open until 10 pm; utilization during the extended hours was extremely low.  SVR peak utilization times are generally 12 pm-6 pm and, in particular for walk-ins, from 3 pm-6 pm. 

The current best practice for sexual assault advocacy is for advocates to be on-call and available to respond immediately.  This is the protocol SVR follows because it allows for a personalized, private response; we meet the survivor when and where they are most comfortable, which is the definition of a trauma-informed response. Community and hospital-based sexual assault services use this model as do other university advocacy programs.  Our peer institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown utilize similar 24-hour advocacy services initiated through a helpline. This is in keeping with the industry standard, which, as just described, is a 24-hour hotline with immediate phone access to certified counselors/advocates who can then respond on-site.

SVR has not had survivors request to meet at the SVR office in person when calling the helpline overnight. Overnight calls are typically for crisis counseling, information about resources and options and/or accompaniment to off-campus resources such as the hospital or NYPD. 

Most importantly, this current demand for on-campus 24/7 staffing is not a trauma-informed best practice.  A trauma-informed response takes into account the need for survivors to first name their experience as a violation, which does not usually happen in the immediate aftermath of an assault. Additionally, seeking services can be very anxiety provoking.  Providing survivors with immediate access via phone to an advocate aids in providing a sense of connection to university services and resources.   Both anecdotal and research evidence demonstrates that survivors will disclose first to friends.  In fact, students are most likely to disclose to a friend rather than to seek services in the immediate after an assault.  According to a Department of Justice survey, two-thirds of survivors disclosed to a friend, not to their family or school (Fisher, Cullen & Turner, 2000).

We have done due diligence in exploring the question of a brick-and-mortar 24-hour rape crisis center, including by reaching out to the executive director of NYS Coalition Against Sexual Assault and to a researcher (Bein, 2010) who examined the best practices of rape crisis centers in 20 states. This research identified no 24-hour brick-and-mortar rape crisis centers in the United States. Additionally, we did a benchmarking study of our peer institutions which revealed that no university has a brick-and-mortar 24-hour rape crisis center.

SVR is also focusing on exploring cutting edge service provision including improving access and service provision through technology (e.g., an online chat system, an app with Health resources and information).


Fisher, B.S., Cullen, F.T., & Turner, M.G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bein, K. (2010). Core Services & Characteristics of Rape Crisis Centers: A review of State Service Standards


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