Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Guest Post On Cuts To Victim Services Staffing Which Risks Ability To Utilize Volunteers

I want to highlight an important and critical issue which was brought to my attention by a man who went through the same victim advocate training I did and who continues to volunteer.

With his permission I am reprinting his words here.

An abbreviated version of this opinion piece was published in the Rochester, MN Post-Bulletin as a letter to the editor titled We Must Fund Victim Services. My statements about this issue are in the comments after this letter to the editor.

Does Anonymity Mean the End of the Nation’s Model for Victim Services?
By Jonathan Saphira
Rochester, MN

We live in a community at the apex of science in both medicine and computer technology, and have law enforcement personnel who are equally competent at protecting kings and presidents as they are at investigating local crimes. We are fortunate, but not by accident. There is a cooperative effort to bring forth the best from everyone here, to serve residents and visitors.

We rarely witness crimes occurring, but they are, nonetheless. Criminals do not want you to know, victims want to remain anonymous, physicians cannot tell you, and law enforcement would rather not show you. An agency providing essential services, often anonymously, has served as a model in the nation for interagency cooperation and dedication to serving the needs of victims of sexual assault, and is called simply “Victim Services.” One of its functions since 1976 has provided the 24-hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line, with trained advocates to respond to callers by phone, and in person to hospital and law enforcement when needed. You may not see staff touting its impact, and it is unlikely that victims of sexual assault will make proclamations about services received. This is simply a vital service; but unless someone you care about ever needed this, the government budget calls it “non-mandated, non-essential,” and subject to severe cutbacks. Do we need to end the anonymity of this program, and understand the extent to which it is used, in order to fund it? What number would be impressive (or frightening) enough? To the person you love, it only matters that the service exists.

In past budget crises, the number of staff advocates has been reduced several times, but something that was never cut was the 24-hour hotline, and immediate response to hospital or law enforcement center when requested. Fifty-three trained professionals from our community volunteer to help, and have been providing overnight and weekend assistance to this program. In anticipation of cutbacks, Olmsted County recently suspended another position in this department (and it is still vacant during state hiring freeze) until County Commissioners finalize the 2009 budget at 9 a.m. December 16. In practical terms, this meant ending the job of Volunteer Coordinator. Years ago, when there were several additional advocates, the job’s duties could be shared, but today there are no spare staff—in fact remaining staff are working overnight shifts covering hospital, law enforcement, and hotline, in addition to serving clients during daytime.

Will a different part of the outstanding team serving victims replace these advocates? That depends on availability of specially trained nurses to stay exclusively with one patient and attend to no other duties. Or a physician’s willingness to accompany a victim to the law enforcement center while an investigation continues. Or an officer’s ability to devote resources to patiently explain all options, and leave the decisions to the victim; and then attend all court hearings to follow up; and at the other end maintain communication with the sex offender probation unit. Then there’s the hotline to staff as well, to answer callers and coordinate between agencies, 24/7 including holidays.

The whole state is searching for ways to meet significant budget shortfalls, and needs painful sacrifices from all; so if we must, let us choose wisely. After all, we build and staff fire stations to defend fires and minimize damage whenever possible; but you pray you never need them and you hope they are nearby if someone causes a fire. We do not shut down the fire stations during recessions because we recognize the need is ever-present. You cannot put a price on how much it means for someone to receive the support of an advocate during a time of trauma; but you can calculate how efficiently money is used when it comes with 19,188 hours donated per year. What looks like savings from one job instead costs a donation of immense value—$397,156.27—calculated at the rate of Minnesota volunteer time—and rips deeply into the safety net of our community. Citizens are stepping forward to help victims of sexual assault in a way no one else is staffed to address. When you take away the Coordinator, you take away the contribution of many, because someone has to match dozens of independent work schedules each day with the needs of the hotline every single day; and coordinate volunteers to respond to hospital and law enforcement; and train new advocates; and that’s just a fraction of the job.

Whether it is for someone you care about, or to serve the whole community, we need to fund the job and carry on this service. Keep the fire stations open; volunteers are willing to serve.

The writer has been a volunteer with Victim Services of Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Counties since 1995, and is writing on his own behalf separate from the agency. The Sexual Assault Crisis Line is (507)289-0636.

Jonathan Saphira, a multilingual interpreter in Rochester, Minnesota, who also volunteers at Victim Services of DFO Counties, Saint Marys Hospital/Mayo Clinic, and Federal Medical Center.

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