Parkland VIP/Rape Crisis Center advocates aid victims of sexual assault, domestic violence
When victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse enter the ER at Parkland Memorial Hospital, they are in pain, physically and emotionally. While medical providers tend to their injuries, a page quickly goes out to Parkland’s Victim Intervention Program (VIP)/Rape Crisis Center. Within minutes, a client advocate comes to the victim and gently explains, “I’m here for you. I’m on your side. How can I help you?”
Responding to referrals from their hospital-based colleagues, client advocates provide emotional support, forensic written and photographic documentation, information and referrals and help with emergency services. They also serve as liaisons between law enforcement, victims and the medical system.
The majority of victims are women, so when the advocate sitting across from them is a male, there could be trust issues.
“Most victims are assaulted or abused by men,” said Sergio Torres, 43, who has worked at Parkland for 22 years. “It’s important for victims to know I am on their side and that I care about them and want to help.”
Torres is currently the only male advocate on the staff of the VIP/Rape Crisis Center, although there have been other men in the position previously.
“Having a male advocate on our team offers a different perspective and the clients have expressed their appreciation for his encouragement and assistance,” said Melissa Reilly, LCSW, Director of the VIP/Rape Crisis Center.
“Most victims open up to me and want to talk,” Torres said. “Only about 5 percent don’t want to. I listen to them and tell them about our services – counseling, legal aid, help finding a shelter or a place to live, financial assistance, whatever they need.”
Following the initial meeting, the advocate follows up with a phone call within a few days to check on the victim and, if they have not scheduled an appointment at the Center, again offer assistance.
For nearly two decades, Parkland’s VIP/Rape Crisis Center has responded to the needs of family violence and sexual assault victims treated at Parkland and its on-campus outpatient specialty clinics. VIP/Rape Crisis staff are available 24/7 to assist with victims’ immediate needs, and provide ongoing counseling and assistance long after physical reminders have disappeared.
“Our goal is to help prevent abuse and violence and help victims heal,” Reilly said. “Many of our patients have little or no income, few resources, job skills or social support. We’re here to help them in this time of crisis.”
In 2012, an enhanced abuse/violence screening was implemented in the Parkland system to better identify victims, Reilly said. In FY 2016, approximately 2,500 victims of abuse/violence (ages 13 and up) were served in the hospital.
“Our job doesn’t stop with the primary victim,” Reilly noted. “We realize that others may be suffering from the violence or abuse so we also offer counseling to secondary victims including non-offending parents, siblings or partners.”
Last year approximately 333 new clients received counseling services and 3,379 counseling hours were provided to victims. Along with a 24-hour hotline, support services include legal advocacy, court accompaniment, and assistance with specific victim resources including Crime Victims Compensation, and community resources. In case of emergency, Dallas County Hospital District police officers respond to provide protection for victims and staff.
The father of two, Torres began his career at Parkland working at the VIP/Rape Crisis Center in 1999. He moved to other positions in the health system before returning to the Center a year ago. Both he and the victims needing assistance had changed in the intervening years, he found.
VIP/Rape Crisis advocates provide services to teens (ages 13-17) because of sexual assault or dating violence. Here, teens seek out counseling to address the emotional impact of past childhood abuse, sexual assault and abusive dating relationships.
Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dating violence is not only physical abuse, but sexual, digital, emotional and verbal abuse as well. February marks Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and Parkland experts encourage parents and teens to be aware of the signs of dating violence and to pursue healthy relationships built on respect.
With a 12-year-old daughter and 9-year old son, for a while Torres struggled to leave work matters behind when he was with his children. “I would go home and think, ‘this could happen to my kids.’ I worried a lot and wasn’t sleeping well,” he said, “but I didn’t want to quit.”
Soon, he realized that worrying wasn’t a solution. “I had to talk to my kids about my job and what’s okay and what’s not okay for people to do. I told them, ‘I don’t care who it is – a relative, a friend, a teacher, a coach – abuse is not right.’ I want them to know how to speak up for themselves, protect themselves, and get help if they need it.”
Now, he says, “I love my job. I can’t wait to come to work every day. I really want to help these people. We make a difference in their lives.”
To learn more about services at Parkland’s VIP/Rape Crisis Center, visit www.parklandhospital.com