June 22, 2018
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What it takes to become a rape victims’ advocate

By Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — When someone is sexually attacked, there is always someone there — an advocate — to give them support.

“Every one is different,” Rape Response Services executive director Tamar Mathieu said Friday, sitting at a table with Alex Turallo, project coordinator for client services, and volunteer advocate Wendy Gilbert of Bradley.

“You don’t know what you’re walking into. There is no situation that is the same — what hurts, how they’re feeling, what they choose to do,” Mathieu said. “We do a lot of listening.”

Rape Response Services, a subsidiary of Penquis, is looking for dedicated, responsible and caring individuals to join their lively team of volunteer advocates and is holding an April training for potential volunteers and those interested in finding out more about resources available for victim survivors.

“It’s a cause that is pretty near and dear to my heart,” said Gilbert, who spent 10 years working as an adult protection investigator and advocate and who has a family member who was sexually assaulted. “I wanted to get involved.”

She has been an advocate for just over a year and has assisted with two victim survivors.

“My first night on call, literally minutes into my 5 p.m. shift, I got a call and off I went,” she said. “I went to meet her at the hospital.”

She said she was nervous as she drove to the hospital where she found the female survivor surrounded by supportive, but upset family members.

“Sometimes their family members need as much attention as the victim, and sometimes the victim needs a break from the family members,” Mathieu said. “There is a whole bunch of variables. You could get there and you’re the only support.”

When Gilbert was dispatched to help her second victim, she found the woman alone at the hospital.

“She had been there for quite some time,” she said. “She wanted to talk and to tell her story. I did a lot of listening.”

She also got the woman some clothing and held her hand while the nurse collected evidence with a rape kit. Gilbert provided the victim survivor with information about a number of resources available to her through Rape Response Services and stayed with her while the police questioned her.

“I hope things are better for her,” the advocate said.

The number of rapes and attempted rapes reported in Maine during 2011 was 391, up 2 from the previous year, according to data compiled by the Maine Department of Public Safety’s uniform crime reporting division.

“Maine has experienced increase availability in services such as rape crisis centers providing 24-hour hot lines and counselors, witness-victim advocates in district attorney’s offices, improved medical practices and increased sensitivity by law enforcement,” the Maine Department of Public Safety’s information states. “The increased number of offenses identified in this report may be, in part, influenced by the increasing confidence of victims in the criminal justice system.”

To Gilbert, helping a victim survivor means discovering their needs. “I’m trying to figure out what they need now and what they need long term,” she said.

Some survivors are never heard from again after the hospital visit, and others tap all the resources available through Rape Response Services, which includes creating safety plans, connecting them with police, legal services, mental health programs, explaining options such as filing for a protection order or simple things like how to ask a landlord to change the locks. The list goes on and on.

“Ours is an empowering model — we’re not telling them what to do,” Mathieu said.

Volunteer advocates also can accompany sexual assault victims to medical, legal and law enforcement appointments.

“We do what the victim survivor is most comfortable with,” Turallo said.

Advocates always are supported by other staff. There are monthly advocates meetings and additional training for those interested in learning more.

Rape Response Services also spends a lot of time educating people, especially youngsters, about prevention, Turallo said.

There is no rhyme or reason for when hot line calls are made, Mathieu said.

“We could go a month with no calls or have five within a week,” she said.

The sexual assault victim services agency, started in 1988, covers Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

The 40-hour victims’ advocate training program starts on April 2 in Bangor and will be held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, have access to reliable transportation and a telephone, and make a one-year commitment to volunteer at least one shift a week.

The Rape Response Service training helps advocates to offer hope and support to victims and people affected by sexual violence and stalking, Mathieu said.

“It’s harder to talk about than any other violent crime,” she said of rape.

To find out more about the training or get a prospective volunteer packet, contact Alex Turallo at 973-3651 or aturallo@penquis.org. Applications must be returned by March 25 to participate in this April’s training.

Individuals who have been impacted by sexual violence living in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties can call the confidential crisis and support line by dialing 1-800-310-0000 or statewide call 1-800-871-7741. The toll-free crisis and support line operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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