Online bid pushes for restoring counseling fund for Nassar victims

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Supporters of Larry Nassar's victims are increasing pressure on Michigan State University to reinstate a fund set up to cover counseling costs for the women and their families.

On Sunday, a supporter posted an online appeal, demanding that Michigan State reopen the $10 million Healing Assistance Fund and hundreds signed it. The fund was established a year ago to help with counseling for Nassar's sexual abuse victims and their families.

But it was shuttered in July after six months after a fraud investigation launched and then rolled into a $500 million court settlement earlier this month.

Among those who say they need the fund are Lynne and Orv Erickson, whose daughter, Ashley, was assaulted by Nassar for nearly two decades.

The Pottsville, Michigan, couple borrowed thousands of dollars to pay for counseling services to help their daughter recover from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of Nassar's abuse.

Lynne Erickson said there have been numerous statements from the university suggesting the fund would be there for the victims.

She pointed to a letter that former President Lou Anna Simon sent to the MSU community in January, days before she stepped down, describing the fund as "steps we are taking to support (Nassar's victims)." She also noted statements in October by Interim President John Engler, who said the fund would be up again in three months.

"They are turning their backs on the very victims who suffered horrible acts by this horrible doctor," Erickson said. "MSU has got to step up. We are all getting tired and weary and we need them to do the right thing.

"MSU has got to realize the damage they are doing and how many young women cannot get the therapy they need because they have no resources."

Erickson added that therapy has a huge impact on helping her daughter recover from the trauma but she is still healing.

"This healing fund is so necessary," said Erickson.

As of Tuesday, about 900 people had signed the online petition as of early Monday evening, including Michigan State Trustees Brian Mosallam, Dianne Byrum, Trustees-elect Kelly Tebay and Brianna Scott, Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault. Groups such as MSU College Democrats and the activist group Reclaim MSU, also signed.

"We, the Michigan State University College Democrats, strongly call on the Board of Trustees to honor their commitment and restore the Spartan Healing Assistance Fund so that the survivors as community can heal," the group said.

Some comments said donations to MSU would be on hold until the Healing Assistance Fund was reinstated. 

Others, like MSU student Benjamin Horne, were philosophical.

"Placing finances over people costs much more than money in the long run," Horne wrote.

Dr. Nicole Eastman, an MSU alumna, added that the actions involving the fund are creating more trauma.

"This healing fund was part of what was given to these survivors for the abuse they endured," Eastman said. "This is just another way these girls and young women are being re-traumatized. Very disappointing on the part of leadership. Do better, MSU."

Victims of Nassar noted the outpouring of support.

"Survivors, myself included, were utterly shocked and disappointed at the conduct of Michigan State board members at their last meeting (Friday); we did not feel heard by university administration," said Morgan McCaul. "Today, we can rest assured that a community of alumni is listening."

McCaul posted numerous tweets, calling the MSU community to join her in signing the petition.

Early Monday, Denhollander joined McCaul and asked people to sign.

"I signed, because MSU is lying about the purpose of creating the fund and who it hurts to stop it," Denhollander tweeted. "Therapists have significant unpaid services from the fund being on hold, and hundreds of survivors are not part of the recent settlement. I'd love your help — sign and retweet."

Her husband, Jacob Denhollander, also posted about the petition online, adding that Engler "is trying really, really hard to secure his place as the runner-up bad guy when the Larry Nassar books are written and the movie gets made."

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said Monday she had nothing to add beyond what Engler said after Friday's board meeting.

Then, he said the remaining money in the healing fund was being rolled into the settlement, which is 49 times the size of what was in the healing fund.

"Because of the magnitude of the settlement, we have thousands of kids on campus that are in need of additional mental health services that we are also seeking to enhance," Engler said.

Earlier this month, Engler announced the fund would be closed and $8.5 million in remaining assets rolled into the historic $500 million settlement with Nassar's victims as a way of reducing the amount of money that the university would have to borrow. Outgoing Board of Trustees Chair Brian Breslin backed him, saying the healing fund was only supposed to be a bridge for victims until the settlement fund was paid.

But victims and their allies said that was not true. Mosallam led a group of four current and incoming trustees in a statement saying they opposed the move.

Additionally, MSU professor Rebecca Campbell, chair of the university Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Workgroup appointed by Engler, strongly recommended that the fund be available to all victims, whether they are part of the settlement or not.

Steve Drew, a Grand Rapids-based attorney who represented many of the victims in the settlement, said Engler and the trustees were "clearly and unequivocally advised by their own experts that there are 'significant health risks' for discontinuing the fund and that denying the benefits they so ceremoniously established are likely to result in a feeling that the actions were a  'gross violation of trust; and that this betrayal will likely cause significant distress that will compound trauma symptoms they are already experiencing." 

On Friday, many victims and allies spoke before the board during the last meeting of the year and asked the trustees to reinstate the fund. 

That's what sparked the idea for the online appeal created by Kathy Haselmaier, a Michigan Technological University alumna who lives in Colorado.

The campaign is called "MSU Honor."

"Michigan State University made a commitment," the website says. "Spartans and other concerned citizens call on Michigan State University to honor the commitment."

Haselmaier, a Royal Oak native, said she set up the online appeal after watching tweets about the MSU Board of Trustees meeting Friday.

When she heard the women and others speak about the need for the Healing Assistance Fund, she couldn't believe the trustees didn't even discuss it during the meeting. 

Of the board members, only Mosallam addressed it during the nearly three-hour  meeting.

"What is our response as human beings to help these people?" said Haselmaier.

Nassar, a former Michigan State physician, sexually assaulted young women for nearly three decades under the guise of medical treatment. MSU set up the Healing Assistance Fund more than a year after Rachael Denhollander made the first public accusation against Nassar and pressure was mounting for the university to do something. The fund was MSU's first outreach to help.

The fund was suspended in July due to a fraud investigation unrelated to victims or their relatives. 

Mosallam said he signed the petition to "reaffirm my support" for the fund and other measures to promote healing and address issues the Nassar case presented.

Tebay, along with Trustee-elect Brianna Scott, will join the MSU board in January.

When McCaul was asked if she thought there would be enough votes to reinstate the fund when new board members join, she said, "for the health and well-being of many, I can only hope so."