It might be 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. Maybe it’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, or 1 a.m. on a Sunday.
Whenever that beeper sounds, the on-duty volunteer at the county’s Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program springs to action.
The 24-hour, seven days a week crisis intervention program is an agency of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services and is staffed by mental health professionals and trained volunteers. When the crisis center is contacted by the police department or the hospital about a victim of rape or sexual assault coming forward, the on-duty volunteer will be paged. The volunteer is sometimes given information such as the victim’s name, address, phone number, age or a brief description of what happened.
“When that pager goes off, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Jean Arthur, who has volunteered with the program for about 14 months.
“Your heart drops. If you were about to fall asleep, you’re wide awake,” said Jeannette Feldner of Wheaton, who has been a volunteer since 2007.
Ron Cohen, a volunteer from Potomac, said he constantly watches the clock when he is on call.
When they are paged, the volunteers often report to Shady Grove Hospital, the hospital that staffs nurses trained in giving forensic exams. The volunteers said it is their job to make the victim as comfortable as possible during the process that can be hours long. Sometimes victims have family and friends with them, and sometimes they come alone. It is the job of the volunteer to be an advocate for the victim, to be a sounding board should they want to talk, or to be a crutch should the victim just need someone by his or her side.
Volunteers provide a clean change of clothes when the victim’s clothing is taken for evidence.
The victims can be as young as 5 years old, so volunteers also carry items for younger victims and the families of victims, including stuffed animals and coloring books with crayons.
“These people are going through a traumatic experience and it’s so reassuring for them to know that there’s someone to be with them through the entire process,” said Sandra Whitaker of Damascus, who has been with the program for more than three years.
“Some of them may have gotten into the situation because they had too much to drink or somebody slipped them something,” Cohen said. “They’re befuddled. ... You just try to be there for them.”
Therapist Ginger Ebner said the volunteers are important because they serve as a point of reference for the victim and the victim’s family. In addition to being “their everything,” as Arthur said, the volunteers also provide victims with resources, including contact information to set up a one-on-one session with a trained therapist.
The program is available to all Montgomery County residents and any person who is victimized in Montgomery County. Should victims seek it out, the first therapy session with the program is free. Victims will not be turned away based on their legal status or their inability to pay.
“Clients that get support immediately after their trauma have less negative symptoms which is why these [volunteers] are so helpful when they’re not right there on the scene of the crime but provide that immediate support,” Ebner said. “Victims heal faster, recover faster when they feel believed and they feel safe, and that’s what our volunteers do.”
The volunteers work a six-hour shift about twice a week, or whenever they are available. There are 33 volunteers in the program now, though supervisory therapist Ellen Wachter — who is also the program’s volunteer supervisor — said they are looking for more because that number is low.
Volunteers go through a 32-hour training program that weeds out the people who may be too sensitive or just not fit for the program, Whitaker said. Volunteers get a chance to work on their counseling skills, tour the hospital, meet with the police department’s major crimes and family crimes departments and do a series of role playing to prepare for a crisis intervention.
During 2012, sexual assault volunteers donated 11,610 hours staffing the 24/7 crisis response, providing crisis intervention in 130 separate outreaches and ongoing services to 241 persons in need of crisis services following a sexual assault.
Training is ongoing for volunteers, who meet monthly to talk about what they did in situations to learn from one another. These meetings are also a time when the volunteers are able to find out from therapists whether a victim they helped has come in for counseling or if an arrest was made in a case they worked. Volunteers are not allowed to have contact with the victims after they leave the hospital.
In addition to sexual assault outreach volunteers, the program also has volunteer court companions who provide support to victims and their families as cases proceed through the criminal justice system. Volunteers also provide resources at health fairs around the area.
Feldner, who is both a sexual assault outreach volunteer and a court companion, said the most helpful thing she has been taught as a volunteer is to be non-judgemental.
“We’re just there with them, we’re not deciding if their story is right or not,” she said.
Some cases can be tough on the volunteers because victims can go through a whole range of emotions — from being angry at an assailant they knew to bursting into tears.
Feldner said she had a case where she was helping a victim, but also helped the victim’s family through the process. It wasn’t until she got into her car at the end of the outreach when it hit her.
“I got in my car and I just busted out crying because it was a really tough one,” Felder said.
Oftentimes, volunteers will feel a connection to the victims who remind them of someone they know, such as a child or grandchild. The volunteers are each assigned a supervisor to report to, who they call after helping a victim to check in and file a report. Those supervisors are available any time the volunteers need them.
While the experience can be stressful, volunteers need to have the empathy and patience to help victims, while also being able to compartmentalize his or her feelings to take on that next outreach.
“We do have to leave our personalities outside of the hospital or police station to put on that brave face or to not feed into the emotion that’s going on,” Whitaker said.
The volunteers said they have been on an outreach where a family member or friend who brought the victim to the hospital and confessed they had been through a similar experience.
“They’ve just told you something they’ve never told anybody,” Arthur said. “It’s bottling up and hindering their progress, and once they’ve gotten it out, they can continue to get therapy.”
Sometimes victims will feel guilty for what has happened to them. Ebner said volunteers and therapists have to remind the victims of the law.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an exotic dancer, the law says at the point of penetration or being touched against your will the law was broken,” Ebner said. “Bad choices doesn’t mean you deserved this.”
Cohen said he thought volunteering with the program would be a good thing to do during retirement, which has turned out to be “an unbelievably rewarding experience.”
“I decided to do it because I have a sister, a wife, two daughters and three granddaughters, and I thought if anything — perish the thought — should ever happen to them like this, I want somebody like me there for them,” Cohen said.