Nassar victims say MSU fund shutdown slows healing

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Valerie von Frank, a parent of a Nassar victim, was among those who made a lot of noise during the last Michigan State Board of Trustees meeting. She turned on her phone and played Twister SisterÕs  ÒWeÕre not going to take itÓ while holding this sign.

When Morgan Valley was 16, she started wanting to stay in bed all day. She worried a lot, didn't want to talk to anyone and even had suicidal thoughts.

Valley, who thought her struggles were related to bullying or some other experience, went to see a counselor, and realized her depression was linked to the sexual assault she endured during treatment by Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University doctor convicted of sexually abusing patients.

MSU set up the Healing Assistance Fund this year to help pay for her and other victims to get mental health services. It came at the right time for Valley, since her parents switched their health insurance and she was no longer getting her medical bills covered.

But in July, MSU froze the $10 million fund because of fraud the university said was related to someone who was neither a Nassar victim nor a victim's family member. MSU reached a historic $500 million settlement with victims last spring.

But those funds —  which will be paid directly to survivors per the decision of a third-party arbitrator — have not been distributed yet and are separate from the healing fund. 

Advocates say the healing fund is critical so victims can get the counseling they need to heal and move on with their lives. 

"I don’t understand why we can’t use it," said Valley, now 21. "I know a couple of the girls have been really struggling ... It's been very hard to see them struggle because they can’t afford to go to therapy."

MSU launched a police investigation into the fraud earlier this year and parted ways last month with the fund administrator, Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc. of Massachusetts. Up until June 30, the fund had paid out $1,159,106.81.

Interim President John Engler said last month that the fund should be operational again in three to four months and university spokeswoman Jessi Adler said the process is underway to get the fund running again.

"As of Friday, we have sent the new (request for proposals) for a new fund administrator out to potential vendors, with bids due by mid-December," Adler said.

Emily Guerrant, an MSU spokeswoman, also apologized to Nassar's victims in a statement posted last month.

 "While the investigation is ongoing, the fund has remained frozen to avoid interference and to prevent any more fraudulent activities from accessing funds that should be going to those who need it most," Guerrant wrote." We apologize for any delay this may cause survivors in getting support and help."

Nassar was one of the most prolific sex offenders in modern times, abusing young female athletes for decades before he was first publicly accused in September 2016. He was incarcerated essentially for life in January 2018 after more than 200 young women testified that he had assaulted them.

When authorities began to investigate Nassar in 2016, Lindsey Schuett, a victim who lives in South Korea, said she put pressure on MSU for assistance when the trauma of 17 years earlier came back into her life.

Though email, Schuett said she felt desperate when she couldn't get the help she needed elsewhere.

"In a moment of desperation after being frustrated with the long wait times of the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) hotline and chat, I called MSU, hoping they could offer some counseling or help considering their employee(s) caused all this pain," Schuett said. "I was told I couldn't talk to a counselor or receive any sort of services. I tried to pass along messages about what a dire situation I was in, and how something needed to be done to support all of the women suffering through this." 

Allies of Larry Nassar victims demand that Michigan State University restore the $10 million Healing Assistance Fund during the Oct. 26 meeting of the Board of Trustees.

Schuett, who gave searing, videotaped testimony  on the first day of Nassar's sentencing hearing in Ingham County in January, said she sought help from a counselor in Seoul, where she is based. But an initial session cost $330.

"I paid that because I was just so desperately out of control emotionally," Schuett said. "I had a lot of issues and incidents: fighting with friends, cutting myself off from contact, crying all the time, having outbursts and issues at work. It was so incredibly difficult and not at all the professional I usually am. "

She didn't get any more therapy until the healing fund opened in 2018 because she couldn't afford it. She then saw someone weekly, until the fund was cut off in May. Since then she has had to cut down to one visit every two weeks.

"It is eating into my emergency funds, and soon they will be gone," Schuett said. "I will have to stop altogether and I feel like it is really going to take me backward in my healing.  I'm just going to shut down and try to maintain instead of growing and healing like I should be doing."

MSU's trustees approved the fund in December 2017 to help victims recover — a process that experts say is different for everyone, and can take months or even years.

Counseling is among the most important parts of the process for victims to recover from the trauma of sexual assault, said Kimberly Hurst, executive director of Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner's program.

"Trauma affects brain function, it affects a person's ability to function on a day-to-day basis, trauma leads to mental health issues, trauma leads to drug and alcohol addiction," she said. "It's the trauma that needs to be treated."

Counseling helps victims understand why they are struggling, Hurst said.

"They need someone to help provide them with tools on how to manage, recognize and address (the trauma), and how to heal," she said.

Hurst added that for Nassar's victims not to have counseling, "is such an injustice" and "penalizing the survivors even more."

"For them to not have the ability to be able to afford counseling for the trauma that was perpetrated on them is egregious," she said "They are revictimizing the survivors even more by freezing this fund that is literally now making it next to impossible for survivors to find that help."

Flushing resident Christina Barba, a former gymnast assaulted by Nassar, started getting counseling earlier this year to cope with the fallout from the abuse. She saw someone six times. 

"It was life-changing because I'm trying to rebuild my understanding of my childhood," Barba said. "I realized a lot of things about myself that I never understood before."

At the beginning, she learned how to avoid holding her breath while stressed or anxious.

"Now, I am processing deeper issues," said Barba. "I have a lot to process."

That's why victims and their allies have been demanding that the university reinstate the fund, which they consider the first meaningful overture to them since the scandal began.

During the MSU Board of Trustees' most recent meeting, Nassar victims and supporters held signs and called for action during the public portion of the Oct. 26 session.

One parent, Valerie von Frank, turned on her cell phone during the business meeting and started playing an anthem by the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Von Frank, the mother who was behind the teal ribbons tied around trees on MSU's campus earlier this year, said halting payments from the fund hurt the people it's supposed to help.

"That decision was made without regard to the women's mental health," von Frank said. "The fund was set up for the mental health services for the survivors and families' mental health needs. And they need it. Some of the women desperately need to continue seeing their counselors and they can't without some assistance ... We are not facing lawsuits anymore, we're facing funerals."

Von Frank said some survivors are doing well, but others are not and  are even suicidal.

"People are suffering," she said. "This is not something where you write a check and you think that the ink is dry on a settlement and it goes away. These woman need assistance and support and they need it now. I cannot overstate that. They are playing with fire here."