Eagle County Victim Services – on call to help
EAGLE COUNTY ” The night is quiet, notably so. Yet, even in her sleep, her trained ears listen for the sound of a phone ringing at her bedside.
She is a volunteer victim’s advocate. She is more than willing ” even anxious ” to help someone in need. Yet, she knows, a quiet night is a good night for everyone. Perhaps, this night no one is hurt, no one’s house has burned down and, hopefully, no one’s loved one has died, tragically, suddenly. She hopes for a good night.
The Eagle County Victim Services Office is there to help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whether there is an accident, a violent crime, or a sudden death, advocates and volunteers are ready to be at someone’s side. They arrive offering support, assistance, information, advice, or just a shoulder to cry on.
Cathy Zeeb has volunteered here and elsewhere in the state for several years. When new volunteers, eager to help, complain that they aren’t receiving calls, she reminds them, “when you’re on call, the best thing in the world is when you don’t get a call.”
“If you do get a call, it means someone’s hurting,” she says. “So, I’m really grateful if my phone isn’t ringing.”
In 2004, the Victim Services Department of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office worked with some 500 people.
“That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s out there,” Victim Services Coordinator Deena Ezzell says. “A lot of people still don’t know we’re here.”
She believes, she says, some victims of sexual assault and domestic violence never contact police. But when a crime is reported, or an accident occurs, victim services is called. They arrives at the scenes of domestic violence, rape, suicides, house fires, car accidents, plane crashes, and skier deaths, among other ordeals.
We’re there to help them emotionally, as well as with their immediate needs,” says Ezzell, who was one of the county’s first victim services volunteers.
Somebody to lean on
Imagine the unthinkable: You are traveling far from home and you’re in a car crash. Or a loved one suddenly dies. You are immobilized with grief. Where do you go? To whom do you turn? How do you get the loved one home?
Sometimes the greatest help a victim services advocate can provide is just to listen ” to allow people to express themselves in times of extreme grief, Zeeb says.
“It’s mainly a hand-holding, volunteer job,” says Zeeb, who adds that in her two years of volunteering in Eagle County, no two cases have been the same. “You’re pretty much going out there to listen and offer support, and to offer as much information as you can, and make sure (the victims) are safe.”
Afterward, the advocates, in the case of a death, try to help survivors through the often-bewildering process of notifying friends and relatives, and helping to make transportation and funeral arrangements.
Ezzell says that many people have never dealt with the details of an unexpected death ” particularly in circumstances where they are alone and far away from home. Zeeb has volunteered on four or five cases where she had to give death notifications.
“They’re hard for the police officers, hard for the medical examiners,” Zeeb says. “We go along so we can stay afterwards, if needed. Those are probably the hardest things I’ve had to do.”
Typically, police officers decide whether a victim services advocate is needed in any given situation. When an officer is called to an accident or crime, as soon he or she knows there is a victim involved, the scene is “secured.” They then ask the dispatcher to get in touch with victim services.
Eagle Police Chief Rick Sliger says his officers place calls to victim services in a variety of cases.
“Any time we have a violent crime, male or female, we contact victim services,” Sliger says. Domestic violence cases also prompt a call to victim services.
“Many times the victim is shaken and upset, and they find it difficult to navigate the process,” Sliger says. “Victim services can walk in and give them someone to confide in, and open doors for support networking.”
Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy says that often, with domestic violence cases, the violence has been building like a pressure cooker for some time. Yet, the victim fears that if she reports the abuse, her husband or boyfriend may go to jail and she and the children will be left without support.
In fact, Zeeb says, the most frequent questions she receives from victims include, “Are they going to take him away?” And, “What am I going to do?”
“That’s when an officer will call,” Hoy adds. “You may be confused, scared. Victim services will come and say, ‘This is why.'”
Hoy recounts one particularly difficult call he received some time back, where the man and woman were yelling at each other when he arrived.
“When we got into the home, there was so much tension in the air you could almost cut it with a knife,” he says. He was in the middle of trying to calm the two people down and make sure no one got hurt, when he looked over and saw two children ” about 4 years old and 5 years old ” watching the scene unfold.
“I’ll never forget the look in their eyes, and the fear I could see,” he says. He recalls contacting victim services to assist the woman and her kids.
All too often, he adds, “young kids are involved. They have nothing to do with it. In reality, they are the innocent bystanders.”
Helping law enforcement
Victim services can also assist investigating officers. By focusing solely on the victim, advocates allow officers to finish their investigations without leaving the victim out in the cold. Having someone on hand who is not in uniform often helps provide a relaxing presence, sometimes enabling officers to learn more about what occurred.
“The marriage works very well,” Hoy says. “Not only does law enforcement catch the bad guy ” we also help the victim and support them through the process.”
Sliger recalls another domestic violence case in Eagle where the woman involved could not speak any English. Victim services sent out a bilingual advocate who was able to communicate with the woman and learn what had happened.
“In that instance, it was extremely instrumental in developing that case,” Sliger says. “At the same time, she was able to provide that network of services for the victim that the officer was not able to provide.”
Sometimes, victim services works with people for days and weeks after the initial incident. In a domestic violence case, that might mean placing the woman in a safe house, providing food and shelter for the family, obtaining a restraining order from the court, or setting the victim up in counseling.
The department works closely with organizations like the Salvation Army, the Resource Center and Eagle County Social Services.
“If you’ve been through something traumatic, there is help available,” Ezzell says. “If not us, we will find you help.”
In the case of a rape, an advocate may accompany the victim to the hospital and explain what to expect in upcoming days from family and the legal process.
And in some instances, victim services advocates follow a case all the way into the courtroom. Advocates may remain by a victim’s side in the courtroom for procedural and emotional support as they face an attacker.
“Sometimes having people with you who are objective can be calming and help you feel safer,” Ezzell says.
Inside Ezzell’s office are bookshelves. One is lined with books about healing, stress management and domestic violence. The other holds dolls, teddy bears, toy dwarfs and building blocks. The toys are there for the times she has to talk to mothers with small children ” or for times she must work directly with children who have been traumatized.
“Those are some of the hardest cases for all of us to deal with,” Ezzell says.
Connie Steiert can be reached at csteiert@CMNM.org