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Spotlight Iowa City: 30 years of fighting sexual abuse in IC

BY MICHELLE HILLENBRAND | FEBRUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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Like many college students in Iowa City, Karla Miller spent the occasional night out with girlfriends.

One of those seemingly simple nights, however, ended up changing her life forever.

After a softball game, Miller’s friends — although not Miller — were out celebrating. When they headed home, they found a man waiting to accost them.

This chilling incident spurred Miller to get involved with the Rape Victims Advocacy Program more than 30 years ago. She now serves as the executive director of the organization.

“People ask how I can do this work for so long, because its dealing with victim blaming and human-to-human evil. It’s nasty stuff,” Miller said. “But we work with victims, and we get to see them heal and go on that journey toward healing. There is nothing like that.”

The 56-year-old began as a volunteer in 1977. Touched by one of the victims with whom she was working, she decided to go back to school to hone her counseling skills and research sex offenders in 1991.

But even after returning to school, Miller had not finished her time with the Rape Victim Advocacy Program.

“The fact that she left and came back speaks to the fact that she is really passionate,” said Anne Wilson, the program’s fiscal manager.

Now, after completing a master’s of social work, Miller spends her time at the office counseling victims, and she also speaks at engagements, sits on committees at the UI, writes grants, and administers the program as a whole.

But Miller also goes beyond those duties to help others.

As an expert, she is called in to talk about victims’ reactions following an assault, discuss the dynamics of sexual abuse between the perpetrator and the victim, and explain why a victim might not choose to report right away.

Miller’s knowledge and expertise, along with her dedication to the cause, prove evident when she talks about what she does. Sitting in her office, walls adorned with diplomas and honors certificates, she stressed the importance of holding perpetrators accountable.

According to the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, Iowa sexual violence centers served 915 teenage and 866 child survivors of sexual abuse.

By counseling victims of abuse, Miller and other counselors are influential in jump-starting the healing process. Miller’s passion for her work is what motivates her to continue, she said — a passion that “shines through,” said volunteer Amy Mattson.

“You have to have passion, or it’s too hard,” Miller said.

This April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a key time for Miller and the rest of the program’s staff and volunteers to increase awareness.

The clothesline project will feature 400 shirts created either by victims or on behalf of victims. In a silent witness event, men and women will stand on the Pentacrest in silence for five minutes.

“We who work here feel very fortunate to be able to do what we do,” Miller said.


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