College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Summer 8-20-2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Megan Greeson, PhD

Second Advisor

Susan McMahon, PhD


Informed by Kennedy and colleagues (2012) help-seeking framework, this two-part study assessed sexual assault survivors’ experiences seeking services in the Illinois civil legal system. Extant research on survivors’ experiences with formal helping systems has largely focused on help-seeking from medical or criminal legal systems. To-date, no studies have done an in-depth examination of civil legal system and civil legal service provider accessibility for survivors of sexual assault. To examine civil legal accessibility for sexual assault survivors in Illinois, data from focus groups conducted with legal advocates, and archival spatial data were analyzed. This community-based research study was conceptualized and informed by input from researchers, civil legal service providers, and legal advocates in Illinois. The study was designed to better understand how the five dimensions of accessibility (approachability, acceptability, availability and accommodation, affordability, and appropriateness) impact sexual assault survivors’ civil legal help-seeking. There were two primary research questions: (1)What are the ways in which legal advocates believe survivors experience each dimension of accessibility (approachability, acceptability, availability and accommodation, affordability, and appropriateness) when attempting to engage in civil legal help seeking (study one); and (2) How geographically accessible are Illinois counties on the basis of civil legal services for sexual assault survivors (study two)? The first study utilized focus group data from legal advocates across Illinois. Advocates discussed accessibility facilitators and barriers survivors encounter when engaging in civil legal help-seeking across all five dimensions of accessibility. Nine focus groups were conducted with a total of 44 participants from December 2021-April 2022. Data were open coded in NVivo software. Following open coding, an accessibility theory-based codebook was created and deductively applied to the data by two coders. Results indicated sexual assault survivors struggle with barriers related to accessing the civil legal system such as: misinformation and lack of awareness of civil legal options; fear, mistrust or past negative help-seeking experiences; issues with lack of legal aid service providers and requirements; costs of civil legal help-seeking; and issues with the civil legal help-seeking process. Conversely, facilitators of survivor civil legal engagement include: advocates and Rape Crisis Centers (RCCs); survivor mental/emotional support; low-cost legal aid options; and flexible service providers.

The second study focused on exploring the availability and accommodation dimension of accessibility. Using archival publicly available spatial data Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analyses were conducted in R to assess the geographic accessibility of civil legal service providers in Illinois by county. Location of civil legal service providers and public transportation were plotted, and two composite accessibility indices (statewide and urban) for the counties in Illinois were created reflecting their accessibility in relation to one another. GIS analyses of civil legal system accessibility revealed a limited number of service providers and limited legal aid options severely impact civil legal system geographic accessibility, especially in southeast and southern counties of the state. Further, findings indicate robust public transportation and living in an urban area (i.e., Cook and surrounding counties) increase geographic accessibility of the civil legal system. Results from these studies together indicate sexual assault survivors encounter a variety of barriers and facilitators when they attempt to engage with the civil legal system. Together, these two studies suggest that use of mixed methods, particularly incorporating GIS, allows for in-depth contextual analyses of access in relation to formal helping systems. Further, results are intended to be used to both to inform rape crisis center service activities and distribution in Illinois (i.e., practice) and state allocation of funding for survivor civil services (i.e., policy).

SLP Collection


Included in

Psychology Commons