CARES Off Call

To the members of the Vassar Community:

CARES is a 24/7, anonymous, student ­run, private peer ­listening service for anyone affected by interpersonal violation, and has served the Vassar community for the last 27 years. Starting in the Fall semester of 2016, however, CARES will no longer be able to serve the community in this way.

Last Wednesday, administrators including: Dean of the College Christopher Roellke, the new Title IX Coordinator and Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Rachel Pereira, Director of Counseling Wendy Freedman, SAVP Coordinator Charlotte Strauss­ Swanson, and Metcalf Counselor LaTasha Smith joined CARES to inform us that Vassar would no longer allow for peer­-to-­peer support services, and will prohibit CARES from having a phone and offering peer ­listening services in any capacity. Until now, members of CARES have taken daylong shifts with a flip phone, which we pass off to each other throughout the week. We received calls from CRC, who gives us the peer’s number to call.

Current CARES members, as well as CARES alumni, are distraught by this news. When asked for rationale, the panel of administrators offered several factors that led to this decision.

First, CARES is overseen by both the Counseling Service under the clinical license of LaTasha Smith, and by SAVP under the clinical license of Charlotte Strauss­ Swanson. These valued counselors and advocates expressed concern that any litigation against CARES, for whatever reason, could lead to the revocation of their licenses, and therefore impact their livelihoods, and the livelihoods of their families. We are sympathetic to this concern, and cannot expect them to risk their livelihoods for our group.

However, there were a few more reasons offered, specifically by Dean Roellke and Rachel Pereira, that reveal a deep misunderstanding on the part of the administration about how CARES functions, and demonstrate a lack of urgency to create a concrete plan to replace CARES with a resource that could serve students who may feel uncomfortable reaching out to professional campus resources. These reasons included:

  • An argument that peers cannot act as first responders
  • The costly nature of the changes necessary to make CARES viable
  • The potential revictimization of callers

We replied with possible solutions to each of those reasons:

  • Administrators fear that students may misconstrue CARES as a crisis hotline, increasing our responsibility and risk to the college. However, CARES intends to act as a listening service — we do not proclaim to have the training to act as first responders. We posed alternatives that would reduce this perception:
    • A caveat on our advertisement that we are not trained in high ­risk issues, and that students in crisis should reach out to capable resources, such as the after­ hours counselor-on-­call service, ProtoCall
    • A removal of our listing under emergency resources
    • A reduction of our on­ call hours
  • While modifying CARES’ structure to more closely resemble similar peer listening services of other schools would reduce risk to the College, such modifications would require the College to invest more money in peer training. Schools with similar services, such as Williams, Northwestern, and Columbia, provide peer listeners with 40­50 hours of professional training. In addition to training, a licensed counselor oversees peer listeners during listening hours. This resembles the training that Vassar EMS members receive and accounts for why EMS is exempt from the cutback that is resulting in taking CARES off call. While we have what Wendy Freedman touted as some of the best student-­led training on campus, we would love the chance to be further and more extensively trained, but Vassar is simply not interested in footing the bill.
  • Title IX Coordinator Rachel Pereira went so far as to suggest that CARES might revictimize callers, and that they would be better off going to professional resources. While relevant, this argument does not consider that all resources have the potential to be retraumatizing. Above all, we feel that students should not be left with only professional resources to turn to. There are people who do not, and never will, feel comfortable working within that bureaucracy.

The panel of administrators dismissed these alternatives. Under the guise of collaboration, administrators initiated the meeting only to obtain an endorsement of their decision to eliminate the College’s peer listening services.

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Entirely student devised and led, CARES was founded in 1989 in response to the increasing visibility of and concern with sexual assault on college campuses, including that of Vassar College. Originally called “Stop Rape Now,” it functioned out of the Strong House basement, and offered in-­person peer-­listening office hours, as well as a phone hotline. Over the years, CARES has evolved alongside technology, adopting a pager and then a cell phone, but consistently offered the same essential resource: non­judgmental, anonymous, survivor-­centered peer-­listening. We, as CARES members, strongly believe that this is a resource that the campus needs and deserves. In addition, CARES has functioned as a safe space that has immeasurably influenced our growth as Vassar students.

In the past three years, CARES has endured several significant changes implemented by college officials. For example, administration mandated that we shift our reporting status from “confidential” to “private,” meaning that CARES members became required to submit summaries of our calls to two supervisors: a representative of the Counseling Service and the SAVP Coordinator. CARES members felt that the shift to private reporting status was detrimental to the organization; we believed that sharing overviews of our calls with the administration reduced the callers’ power. Despite that, we complied fully. While we made it clear in our advertising that we were now private, we chose not to publicize the fact that administration had forced us into the change of our protocol in order to retain good relations with college officials. Although CARES protocols changed drastically within three years, CARES continued to successfully work through the changes while continuing to appease the administration. At Wednesday’s meeting, administrators made it clear that they neither recognize nor appreciate our efforts to amend our organization.

We owe it to the Vassar community and to ourselves to continue the work of CARES in any capacity that the administration permits. We plan to continue to serve the Vassar community by organizing survivor-­centered programming, weekly survivor affinity spaces (ie: dinners, self­care events), and workshops that aim to both educate the Vassar community on issues of violence and provide resources for students on campus who need it.

At the same time, such programming will not be sufficient in replacing the need for peer-­listening. As such, we are asking for anyone who has had experience with CARES, and who feels comfortable, to email us at cares@vassar.edu about the positive effect that our organization has had on them as individuals and on the campus community as a whole. While we accept that CARES may never be able to provide peer-­listening to the campus again, the administration must understand that a replacement service must be established expressly.

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