STEPS bridges domestic violence shelter gap
Published 8:00 am Friday, April 21, 2023
The Southside Center for the Prevention of Violence, also known as Madeline’s House, closed its doors at the end of November. Since then, there has been no operational domestic violence shelter for Amelia, Cumberland, Buckingham, Lunenburg, Nottoway, or Prince Edward counties since.
STEPS, the region’s Community Action Agency, is doing what it can to fill the void.
“The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, which runs the state Domestic Violence hotline, called to see how we could help, as Madeline’s House was closing,” recalled STEPS Vice President of Housing Shawn Rozier. “And, while we don’t provide all of the services as a domestic violence shelter, we are able to help bridge the gap.”
When shelters are full or someone is facing an imminent potentially dangerous situation, STEPS is now able to provide paid hotel stays until the individual/family can be placed at a domestic violence shelter and transportation as needed.
“We are getting a steady number of calls — not high volume,” Rozier said. “On average, about one or two situations a week.”
And that doesn’t include calls that go directly to the domestic violence hotline.
A PROBLEM ACROSS THE STATE
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), over 33 percent of women and more than 28 percent of men in Virginia “experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner rape and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes.”
Also, according to NCADV, “Virginia police estimate there are approximately 31,000 active protective orders on file in the state at any given time.” More than half of Virginia’s 541 homicide victims in 2020 “were committed by an intimate partner.”
The issue and the need are painfully real.
STEPS initially received financial support from four counties that redirected existing annual appropriations for Madeline’s House to help provide bridge support.
“It was a tremendous help,” Harrup said.
STEPS dreams of partnering to have a full domestic violence shelter to meet the long-term regional need. A local donor has pledged to buy a building that can be used as a shelter and STEPS has actively discussed its intent to seek operational funding with local leaders and state entities responsible for domestic violence programs.
But processes take time; state entities have not yet identified a plan for bringing domestic violence services back to the region since the closure of Madeline’s House.
“We can get there by building partnerships,” Harrup said. “This is a community that cares about its people. If all of us pull together, we can provide this needed service.”
CENTRA GETS INVOLVED
According to James Bryant, Vice President of Emergency Services for Centra Southside Community Hospital (CSCH), Centra is also working on expanding Forensic Nursing program services in the hospital’s Emergency Department.
“Sadly, all communities can be touched by violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect,” he said. “The community recognized and shared the need for…services as part of our triennial Community Health Needs Assessment. In response, Centra Southside is working to bring a team of forensic professionals to the local Emergency Department and…community.”
Centra Health provides Forensic Nursing Consultations and Examinations at Lynchburg General, Virginia Baptist Hospital and Gretna Medical Center Emergency Department. Forensic nurse examiners are registered nurses who have additional education and training in interviewing, examining patients, collection of evidence, photographing, documenting and, when appropriate, providing expert testimony based on their encounter, Bryant explained.
“The work is exacting and emotional,” he said. “Victims can be infants or children, the elderly or those in pain and fearing the worst. These professionals are on call to meet the needs of patients, families, and our community to provide documentation and evidence preservation that may lead to the arrest and conviction of those who committed a crime and bring closure to a tragic event.”
Sexual assault patients at Centra Southside Community Hospital are currently referred to Lynchburg or Richmond. That, however, will soon change. Centra’s emergency services and forensics leaders met with the hospital’s Board of Directors and laid the groundwork to launch expanded services.
“We are currently looking at the final program design and staffing,” Bryant said. “The training is approximately 16 weeks and will be supported by LGHs (Lynchburg General Hospital’s) experienced team. We hope to have the program up and running by fall, 2023.”
April Rasmussen, Centra’s Director of Forensic Nursing Services, is heading up the effort to create the forensic nursing program at Southside.
“By having a forensic nurse on site, evidence will be readily collected,” she explained. “Patients will have nurses trained in trauma informed care that can talk to them in a manner that allows the patient to see that they are believed and begin planting the seed of hope. In addition, the nurses will provide the patient with the resources for domestic violence, sexual assault, and court advocacy.”
WHAT ARE FORENSIC NURSES?
Forensic nurses will be able to respond to patients that have been physically and/or sexually assaulted, see domestic violence patients, children that are physically or sexually abused, adult sexual assault patients, those experiencing elder abuse/neglect, and patients with malicious wounding assaults (non-domestic) such as stabbings, broken bones, and lacerations.
“The continued challenge is hiring nurses and developing a dedicated space for forensic nurses to be stationed,” Rasmussen said. “The additional challenge is the need to have advocacy that can respond to the hospital to offer support to the sexual assault patients. STEPS…has been working hard to develop a process that will allow a partnership and the offering of quality support for our patients.”
STEPS’ ground-breaking Sexual Assault Recovery Program will train volunteer comfort workers to accompany victims to CSCH’s Emergency Department. The volunteers will provide comfort and compassion during the medical examination process and beyond.
“This will not be counseling nor providing any legal advice,” Harrup explained. “This is about being there for someone, helping them to understand the process and to share compassion. No one should have to go through such trauma alone.”
WHERE WILL TRAINING COME FROM?
Central Virginia YWCA in Lynchburg will provide approximately 32 hours of training for volunteers.
“The work can be very rewarding,” Linda Ellis-Williams, Central Virginia YWCA Senior Director of Victim Services said. “Just to be there and comfort someone during the worst time of their lives, is unique.
“Not everyone can or should do the (volunteer) work,” cautioned Ellis-Williams, who has been involved in training for over 20 years. “In this field, advocates will take on various trauma which will cause burnout rather quickly if they don’t have a good support team backing them.”
The training will take approximately 32 hours over two-three weeks and include time online and in-person. Part of the training, according to Ellis-Williams, includes observing advocates at work.
“Volunteers need to range from college age students, middle age, and retired folks,” she said. Volunteers must be able to report to the CSCH Emergency Department within 30 minutes of receiving the call.
Anyone interested in becoming a comfort volunteer can contact Rozier at 434-315-5909 Ext. 261 or Sharon Harrup, 434-315-5909 Ext. 212 for more information.