Crisis Response Lines Advocate for Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault

Tori Fater , 5:00 p.m. CT March 21, 2017

Tammy Little wasn’t ready the first time she tried to volunteer to help women dealing with domestic abuse. She was only 25, she said, and still processing abuse she had lived through herself. She wanted to order clients to get out of their bad situation for their own safety.

Thirty years later, she’s not as close to her own trauma, but has kept the intuition and compassion that drives her to support someone who might be living through the hardest day of their life.

Little is a crisis response advocate with the Albion Fellows Bacon Center in Evansville. She spends 16 hours a week on-call to advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse at hospitals in Evansville and Princeton.

The Albion Fellows Bacon Center and YWCA Evansville both offer crisis lines for people dealing with domestic violence — the YWCA line is manned by staff members and the Albion line is run by both staff and volunteers, like Little.
Personal care items are provided for abuse victimsBuy Photo

Personal care items are provided for abuse victims at the YWCA in Evansville, Tuesday, March 21, 2017. (Photo: Alex Slitz / Courier & Press)

While the YWCA usually fields calls from people looking for more immediate help, like shelter, Albion volunteer advocates are likely to hear from people who were victims of sexual assault or domestic violence and are trying to figure out their next step at a hospital.

Advocates can choose to answer calls and visit people in crisis, or they can choose to only answer phones if they aren’t up to meeting people in person. Other volunteers, like Little, choose to be on-call and meet with clients as they talk to nurses or law enforcement.

Little isn’t the only volunteer who realized they weren’t cut out for crisis response at first, said Albion volunteer director Kelly Dockery. If a would-be advocate has a history of trauma, Albion asks them to wait to start training until at least two years after the abuse happened. Some people are ready at six months, Dockery said. Others still haven’t processed enough within five years.

“I think it’s important, to do this kind of work, to pull yourself out of it and realize all you are there for is them,” Little said. She doesn’t give advice or judge clients. “All I’m there is for support and to be kind, and to give them information and answer questions.”

One misconception volunteers have, Dockery said, is that they’ll only be working with victims who are ready to leave an abusive relationship or have already left.

“There’s a lot of clients we work with who are still in an abusive relationship and are going to continue that relationship and are super-committed to it,” she said. “So if that’s a part of what they want to do, we can keep them as safe as possible when they’re in it.”

That’s hard for some volunteers, who have to learn to let clients make their own decisions.

Callers aren’t required to have any specific information when they get in touch, Dockery said, but the people who answer phones are prepared with resource guides and hours of training. They know callers don’t always come in to Albion for services, which means the call could be their only chance to help that person. The person who answers the phone will help the caller make a safety plan, tell them where they can find help, and offer emotional support.

“Safety is always going to be number one,” Dockery said. “There’s times people just call and want a friendly voice on the other end and they don’t want to connect with services, or they’re not ready to yet. There’s other times they call and they’re ready to go.”

Advocates do about 40 hours of training, including six hours face-to-face with Dockery roleplaying conversations with clients. They run through scenarios like answering a domestic abuse victim who asks “why do I keep going back?” Dockery teaches volunteers what to expect and what to say.

“Words matter,” she said.

YWCA staffers working on the crisis line have ongoing training, and new staff members will work with more experienced staff to learn what questions to ask and where to direct callers. The group fielded 2,976 crisis calls last year and 475 from Jan. 1 through Monday.

Chris Lothamer, legal advocate at the YWCA, said staff always give people time to ask lots of questions. Safety is top priority, but helping callers feel welcome is important as well.

“Some of them, when they make that call, they are ready to come into shelter right now no matter what, but some of them are trying to make that decision,” Lothamer said. “We do tell them whatever they decide to do, they need to safety-plan.”

People often ask if the YWCA has rooms available and if it will give out their names, said case manager Linda Riddle, who takes crisis calls. The YWCA keeps clients’ records confidential, according to Lothamer, but will ask clients for an emergency contact number in case they’re out late.

The YWCA also directs people to legal advocates and other resources through the crisis line.

Dockery said willingness to serve is essential for Albion volunteers, but so is availability. Most people who finish training have mentally committed to spending a lot of time volunteering, not just fitting crisis response into one hour a week, Dockery said.

“What we ask is a lot, and that’s hard if you’re super busy,” Dockery said. “Who wants to go through 40 hours of training and give us 5 hours?”

Training volunteers for crisis response means providing the advocates with emotional support too. Dockery said she lets advocates know they can call her or other staff members to debrief from a hard call. Even moments that don’t feel like victories — seeing a client who is going to go back to a dangerous situation — can be important, because every meeting means they’re closer to safety.

“Next time we’re that much closer to getting them into a safe, healthy space,” she said.

The work has been fulfilling since the first time she was called to a hospital to help a sexual assault victim, Little said.

“I have never left the hospital feeling bad about being there,” Little said. “I’ve always felt like … I was needed, and I was appreciated, and I was thankful and very humbled that I could be there.”

To volunteer with Albion Fellows’ crisis response team, call the center at 812-422-9372.

People who need help for themselves or a loved one can call the YWCA crisis line at 866-367-9922 or request an Albion advocate at 812-422-5622.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 800-799-7233.