For a little more than a year, when a victim of domestic violence has come to the Howell Police Department headquarters to file a complaint, they have had the chance to not only report the incident to an officer, but have also received comfort and an open ear from a volunteer.
That is because as of December of 2009, the department joined a number of towns around the county to form a Domestic Violence Response team (DVRT) to help those in need. The DVRT works with the police and an organization called 180 Turning Lives Around to provide victims with information about their rights and what their next steps can be.
According to Tina Morgan, the coordinator of the Southern Monmouth County region of the organization, all but two of the towns throughout the whole county have similar teams in place. "The goal is to make sure that every police department will be assisted by 180 when they have a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault," she said.
Anytime a victim reports to police headquarters, a call goes out to an advocate from the team to help them through what can be a difficult process. "They are basically there to provide emotional support, resources and options to educate them about what domestic violence is and make sure they understand their rights."
From the department's side, the two liaisons to the DVRT are Corporal Kevin Steinard and Patrolman Maureen McBride. They then work with the volunteers who, before they can help people, receive 40 hours of training over the course of a month.
Morgan said those interested in being an advocate with the program have a background check and get finger-printed. A volunteer with the DVRT also does not have to be a resident of the town they help out in, but has to live within a half-hour of the department so they can respond to a call in a timely manner.
She said during the training volunteers are given explicit rules of what they can and cannot say when talking to a victim. "During their training, they're taught about the ethics and the values," she said. Everything is within limits because they're there as advocates."
One of the most important roles an advocate can play when responding to a call is to connect the victims to the proper channels to help them move forward. "That's the goal of it to get the person the confidence in themselves to be able to reach out to get the help they need," Morgan said.
Steinard said before the DVRT, officers helped victims that came to the department, but that the team members are able to take that help to another level. "We didn't always know about all of this assistance that was available," he said. "We might tell them a couple things and maybe give them an phone number, but an advocate can come in and give them a lot more information than we could give them."
Included in the information given to victims is how to go about getting a restraining order if that is something they want to pursue. "It's called ‘how to present your case,’ " Morgan said. "Some of them are nervous and scared and this gives them the opportunity to write down all the information when appearing in front of a judge."
Morgan said another important part of the program is the confidentiality that goes for both the advocate and the victim. The two only are introduced by first name, and it is only a one-time meeting. Even in the unfortunate case that a person comes back more than once, they cannot request to meet with the same advocate.
Steinard said it is the confidentiality that helps to make the connection. "They're just looking to hear their story and see what the victim is going through and see what they can do to help."
And while the volunteers are providing a service to the people they are helping, Morgan said one of the hardest parts of their job is being able to separate themselves from the situation. "That's what we teach during the training. You can't take it home, you can't make it personal. You're just there to advocate and refer them over to where they need to go."
Because of that, Morgan said a special kind of person is needed to join the team. "It has to be a person who is a very good listener, somebody who's not going to be very judgmental. They have to want to do it. They have to have it in their hearts to want to help somebody."
McBride also said a key component is that the person has to have the time to give to the program in order to help people. She said part of that time includes a monthly meeting between the department liaisons and the team members. "If they have any issues, or problems, or concerns they can let us know and we can communicate that through the officers," she said of the meetings.
Having been an advocate herself in Neptune, Morgan has seen the success a team can have from different angles. She has also seen progress made in helping the victims move forward and get the help they need. That includes having a volunteer group close to 300 strong spread throughout the county.
Steinard said knowing the volunteers are there actually helps make the officer's job a little easier while helping a victim. "I think you feel a little more comfortable knowing that at least the victim has a lot of the information not only that you're able to give them as an officer, but also that the advocate gives them."
The Howell officers also said the victims might feel more comfortable talking to someone who is not in uniform about their situation.
The two also gave credit to retired Captain Donna Craton with helping to implement the team. They also said that even before the DVRT came to Howell the basic training of how to handle what can be a sensitive situation was important to everyone involved. "I think officers receive a lot of training for use of force. Probably the thing right underneath that would be domestic violence," said Steinard. "We're reminded of the policy that we should be following. It's also one of the most dangerous calls because people are very upset and very emotional."
He also said that he has seen how beneficial having the team has been to the residents of the town. "Without DVRT I think you might see people come back more often," he said. "With this program I'm not going to say no one ever comes back, but maybe fewer come back because now you're given the tools and information to take care of yourself."
The Domestic Violence Response Team is always looking for volunteers both men and women and Morgan said the best first step for a person to take is to go to 180's website at www.180nj.org. On the site people can also find links to other organizations to find help for themselves or others.