Victims Advocate Network marks 100 served in 2020

The University of Texas at Austin Police Department (UTPD) Victims Advocate Network (VAN) marked a significant milestone on November 19. Despite the multitude of changes to operations during the pandemic, the team of VAN employees and volunteers who provide immediate crisis intervention services at the scenes of crimes or distressing events has provided care for 100 UT community members and beyond thus far in 2020. 

VAN is a grant-funded program that was established by UTPD in collaboration with the UT HealthPoint Employee Assistance Program in 2019. It is led by two masters level social workers who have an office within the police department and oversee an on-call network of 20 volunteer UT staff members. Program Coordinator Marica Kelley is a Steve Hicks School of Social Work alumnus.

VAN was designed to offer a 24/7 in-person response upon the request of UT police officers to provide Mental Health First Aid, victim advocacy, practical assistance, and linkage to the appropriate campus or community resources for ongoing support. In mid-March that response greatly changed to primarily providing support by phone.

"Until that point, we had not fully realized just how heavily we relied on our ability to read facial expressions and body language in person when assessing and supporting those in crisis, so to suddenly lose those tools left many of us feeling lost," said Marica Kelley, LMSW. "But I knew we could do this work this way, and we could learn to do it well."

Kelley and her case manager Danica Morgan, LMSW, reached out to their partner contacts at the SAFE Alliance who operate a local 24 hour crisis hotline. From there, the VAN team spent the summer training on best practices of providing phone and video support. Kelley and Morgan developed a remote response guide for the advocates which included information on active listening, validation, needs assessment, solution exploration, support assessment, follow-up plan, and call closure. Volunteers went through practice runs of a call from start to finish to get comfortable with the new process. For officers, VAN supplied bags with an informational brochures to hand out on scene. All of this was done to make sure there was no lapse in service.

"VAN has absolutely continued our assistance to the community. In fact, we feel more needed than ever. We understand that with the pandemic everyone is simultaneously experiencing an ongoing distressing event, so when that is the baseline and then a community member experiences or witnesses a crime or distressing event that requires a police response, they are in even greater distress and very much deserving of support," Kelley said. 

Kelley says the pandemic has brought on effects of isolation, grief, fear, anxiety and only worsened what was already defined as a mental health crisis in the country. Furthermore, Kelley says the American Public Health Association has declared racism its own public health crisis which has also impacted the mental health of UT community members. 

"It is critical that we acknowledge and understand these issues in order to respond in ways that are trauma-informed and that effectively advance equity and justice," said Kelley.

The VAN response is up from 71 persons supported for all of 2019 to 100 so far this year. She offers the following advice for anyone who may know someone who is experiencing difficulty during this time.

"I try to not approach my response to a person who has experienced a distressing event from a place of advice-giving. Instead of taking charge, we aim to be person-centered in understanding that those we are helping are often the experts of their own needs. The most universal advice that we provide is probably the encouragement that they activate their support systems–whether that be family, friends, or one of the many resources on campus that are here to support them. The most helpful reassurance we can provide is that they don't have to navigate this experience on their own," said Kelley.

With the growing demand for service, Kelley hopes to increase her volunteer team to 40. Volunteers commit to 16 hours of on-call availability per month. Shifts are four hours long. Flexible scheduling options are available. Those interested can visit the VAN web page for more information.

"We are truly in awe of the level of courage and dedication from our folks who are so passionate about service to others. I am so proud that the leadership and officers at UTPD genuinely embrace this team approach to conduct effective care-taking for our community. This is love work. This is putting our love for our community into tangible action." said Kelley.

100 served is very meaningful to VAN and UTPD. It means 100 people were not alone with their thoughts after experiencing a traumatic event. 100 people were connected with university support services. And most importantly, VAN made a difference in 100 lives. UTPD is thankful for this service to the community and hopes to expand in years to come.

Nov. 19, 2020