The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2024-04-19/in-the-worst-moments-of-austinites-lives-apd-victim-services-shows-up/

In the Worst Moments of Austinites’ Lives, APD Victim Services Shows Up

Inside one of APD’s most-celebrated divisions

By Austin Sanders, April 19, 2024, News

The 911 call that sticks with Lili Eguia more than any of the hundreds of others she has responded to didn’t even involve a crime.

In the summer of 2022, Austin police officers were dispatched to a suspected drowning call involving a 7-year-old child at an apartment complex in North Central Austin. While the child was en route to Dell Children’s Medical Center, the officers put out the call for assistance from a victim services counselor. As a crisis counselor with the Austin Police Department’s Victim Services Division, Eguia took the call. At the hospital, she was directed to the trauma room where she found the child’s mother and stepfather, both Spanish speakers, in an intense state of anguish.

After most sudden deaths, APD must investigate for potential criminality, as difficult as that can be for grieving families. In this case, Eguia stuck by the parents’ sides for the next six hours – praying with the child’s mother as doctors attempted lifesaving measures; interpreting questions from English-speaking officers about the circumstances of the drowning; and, finally, driving the parents home.

“I was their support system,” Eguia told the Chronicle. Navigating complex, emotional episodes in the lives of people actively undergoing crisis is a frequent occurrence for APD’s crisis counselors. They respond to a variety of violent crime calls and every call involving a death throughout the city. Often, the scenes of such calls – even when no criminal activity is suspected – can be chaotic and emotional.

“My job is to be there emotionally for people,” Eguia said, “not to minimize their pain or solve every problem they’re facing, but to provide a safe space for them to express their feelings. Just acknowledging that whatever they’re feeling is normal can bring a level of comfort and calm to what can be a very dark time in someone’s life.”

The relationships that Victim Services counselors have with their clients often begin with crisis, but they don’t end there. After a crisis counselor completes their on-scene work, an investigative counselor will follow up with the client within the next few days to build a relationship. If a case advances to the prosecution stage, the counselor-client relationship will last the entire time it takes for the client’s case to make its way through the criminal justice system.

That process can take months or even years, and typically involves a counselor helping the client through a series of painful, life-changing moments. Sometimes it’s helping the client decide if they should report a domestic violence incident, which can permanently alter a family regardless of how the legal process plays out. Other times counselors sit beside a client as they recount the traumatizing details of a rape to the detective investigating the assault. Critically, counselors say, their work is entirely “client-led.” They offer support and guidance but do not force clients to do anything they are not comfortable doing (like providing a statement to support an investigation).

The impact counselors can have on survivors of sexual assault and other gender-based crimes can be huge. “Sex crimes often come with a great deal of emotional harm,” Silvana Giono, who supervises the sex crimes and child abuse units within Victim Services, told us. A person assaults their partner. A parent abuses their child. A student sexually assaults a classmate. “Our job is to ensure people who experience these incidents begin healing,” Giono continues. “But when an investigation ends, that doesn’t mean the healing has ended. If we can help our clients process their trauma, before, during, and after a criminal investigation, we can help them achieve healing.”

For some counselors and clients, the relationships forged through these events can extend well beyond the life of a criminal case. “We meet our clients during the worst moments of their lives,” said Jeannie Tomanetz, who has spent the past 24 years as a victim services counselor at APD. Being there in those moments forms a strong bond. “I know their kids’ names, and they share things that they just don’t share with others. Sometimes, they just call back to talk, even 20 years later.”

In Sync With Officers

APD’s Victim Services Division sits at an interesting intersection of law enforcement and victim advocacy. While it exists within a municipal police department, all of the division’s leadership and front-line staff are civilian employees – not sworn law enforcement like police officers. The service they provide is more akin to that typically provided by nonprofit organizations: a blend of counseling, advocacy, and case management.

Crime victims can call to inquire about services and resources, even if they are not yet ready to report an incident as a crime, which would trigger a formal investigation process. But, one of the crucial differences between Victim Services and advocacy organizations like SAFE Alliance is that Victim Services counselors cannot offer their clients confidentiality. Everything a client tells a counselor must be documented in the counselor’s supplemental report, which is added to the client’s case file.

Still, outside advocates say their partnership with Victim Services is vital to the work each entity does. Nikhita Ved, vice president of community services at SAFE Alliance, told us that the help is bidirectional. Sometimes a person will make first contact with SAFE to seek services, like a rape kit. After establishing a relationship with the client, a SAFE advocate may make a “warm handoff” to a Victim Services counselor so the person can explore reporting their assault as a crime. Or, a counselor may interact with a victim on a 911 call who is not ready to press charges over an alleged assault, but they are ready to flee the partner who assaulted them. The counselor can connect that person with an advocate at SAFE who can help them secure safe shelter.

“I’ve been at SAFE for 10 years and the entire time I have had an excellent relationship with APD,” Ved told us. “Detectives are usually busy investigating in the field, so Victim Services gives us a consistent point of contact to advocate with on behalf of our clients.” If a client wants an update on their case or to share new information on an open investigation, SAFE’s advocates can call APD if the client is not comfortable doing so themselves.

APD’s Victim Services Division has maintained a long, sterling reputation among advocacy organizations – even as many of those organizations, in recent years, were highly critical of how APD handled crimes like sexual assault. Victim Services, as it straddles the line between law enforcement and advocacy, has not been subject to the same criticisms.

Embedding its services within APD has been central to the division’s design since its inception in 1981. It was launched by Ann Hutchison – who served as the division’s first manager and who would go on to be a pioneer in the field – to enable counselors to “quickly respond to victims’ needs, meet officers at a crime scene, and provide victims with a mix of immediate crisis counseling and practical advice,” according to a 2001 report Hutchison wrote about the division.

Counselors within APD can respond to certain 911 calls at virtually the same time as police officers. As of 2019, counselors are automatically dispatched to all sex crime calls, and they typically respond to all deceased person calls (where they handle emotionally fraught death notifications). Patrol officers can request the assistance of a counselor on any call they think may require the unique skill set of a counselor – domestic violence, child abuse, or human trafficking calls in particular. Counselors also monitor incoming calls for service and often assign themselves to calls where they feel able to help.

Kachina Clark, one of the people heading Victim Services, told us that the deep integration and cooperation between APD’s sworn personnel and Victim Services is crucial to supporting crime victims. “Being able to respond to 911 calls alongside patrol officers is so important to our work,” Clark said. “That interaction, right after an incident occurs, may be our one and only time to interact with a victim. The hope is if a counselor is there from the beginning, law enforcement can focus on their job of collecting evidence and pursuing the case. Then we can provide support or counseling on the scene and as the investigation continues.”

If Victim Services were not co-located within APD (counselors are staffed within all of the department’s major crimes investigative units), Clark said, that rapid response to emergency calls and deep integration with investigators would be more difficult to achieve. Conversations with patrol officers indicate that they agree with Clark’s assessment. One officer, who recently departed the Houston Police Department for APD, told us his former employer did not have the same level of interaction between Victim Services and sworn personnel. He said the integration in APD has been helpful with patrol work, because he can spend more time investigating on-scene while counselors help with victims.

Clark recalls an effort in 2020 that would have moved Victim Services out from APD and into the Austin Public Health department – a more traditional location for the kind of work Victim Services does. The effort was part of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force – the multi-pronged city/community effort at reforming various aspects of APD following protests over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin. “We pushed strongly against that because co-locating is so important to what we’re doing,” Clark told us.

Eventually, Clark – with the help of her staff and advocates for survivors of sexual assault – persuaded city staff, City Council members, and task force members. It’s unsurprising Clark was successful. In her 26-year career at APD – all of which has been spent at Victim Services, where she started working as a graduate student intern in 1998 – she has become one of the most widely respected figures in local law enforcement. Clark was not only unscathed by the series of sex crime-related scandals that rocked APD beginning in 2016, she has since played an instrumental role in improving the way the department responds to sex crimes and in helping to restore the broken trust between survivors and APD. Both are a testament to her ability and reputation.

Now, Clark reports directly to Austin’s police chief – a policy change enacted by former Chief Joseph Chacon and continued by his interim successor, Robin Henderson. That enables Clark to provide a “victim-centered, trauma-informed perspective” on a variety of departmental policies, like how the sex crimes unit is staffed, how cadets are trained, and how investigators interact with crime victims.

Growing, Growing, Growing

Part of the division’s growth has been in raw staffing – today, 52 counselors enable citywide, 24/7 coverage. In the early days of Victim Services at APD, the division depended on volunteer support. After undergoing training, volunteers could ride along with counselors on calls. The volunteer program no longer exists, but about 15 years ago, Clark helped transform the division’s internship program. A rotation of eight graduate student interns, each paid a $2,500 stipend, work alongside counselors each semester. Many of them go on to continue working for APD (Clark estimates that about half of the division’s current counselors are former interns).

But Victim Services has grown and changed in other ways, too. In the past, Clark told us, the salaries and benefits paid to the “vast majority” of counselors were mostly funded through state and federal grants – an attractive funding source for cities because it doesn’t require the use of any precious General Fund (i.e., local tax revenue) dollars. But grants are less stable. They require a rigorous, competitive application process that is time-consuming and often pits local governments against one another for the same pot of money (APD has often applied for the same grants that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office is applying for to fund its separate Victim Services division, for example).

Now, the inverse is true – the vast majority of Victim Services positions are funded through local tax dollars (including 10 previously grant-funded positions at risk of being cut until a budget amendment from CM Alison Alter moved them into the city budget last year). Funding more of Victim Services through local taxes rather than less-stable grant funds also reflects a higher level of commitment among city and police leadership to the work the division does. Henderson is described as an ardent supporter of Victim Services, shown through her support of Clark and also of an internal task force charged with implementing a slew of changes aimed at improving the department’s response to sexual assaults.

Over the years, that embrace of Victim Services has trickled all the way down APD’s chain of command to individual rank-and-file officers, too. Clark points out that there is not a single officer patrolling the streets of Austin who started at APD before Victim Services existed. Utilizing counselors is natural for officers now – thanks, in part, to another recent policy change. In 2022, Victim Services stationed a counselor full time at the Austin Police Academy to help develop and implement a trauma-informed approach to all types of training cadets undergo (Clark is also helping review the academy’s training curriculum). Trust among detectives and department leadership that Victim Services counselors not only help victims of crime, but investigators of crime, has also fundamentally changed. Clark recalls that early in her career at APD, counselors were required to file reports logging the time they were saving officers.

Counselors’ expertise has also increased, thanks to a requirement that they hold a master’s degree in some kind of mental health field. Many are also licensed clinical social workers or have prior experience in social work. Tracy Morris – the division’s current manager – says this is key to how counselors address potential long-term psychological harm.

“Our counselors provide all kinds of support for victims of crime right after a traumatic event,” Morris told us. “Sometimes that’s providing a victim an air-conditioned car to sit in and cool off. Sometimes it’s taking them to a place where they can feel safe. Sometimes it’s just listening to their story.”

Morris said the immediate intervention Victim Services counselors provide can have an even more profound effect on children. Counselors often respond to calls involving children – both where they are the victim, like in child abuse cases, or where they are witness, as in many intimate partner violence calls. In either case, a counselor intervening to help a child “ground” themselves psychologically can go a long way in reducing the child’s chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, Morris told us. Talking with children, letting them ask questions, and engaging them in physical exercise to help their brains process trauma (for this reason, counselors carry soccer balls and other kids’ activities in their city-issued vehicles) can all help ground a child after a traumatic event.

“If we can help reduce the psychological impact of witnessing or being the victim of a crime,” Morris told us, “by helping them get reestablished in the moment so their brains can begin processing what they experienced, then I think we get to impact generations.”

A Call With a Client

On a slow Monday evening shift in March, Katie Herbers scans incoming 911 calls for any that may need a Victim Services counselor. There are reported assaults and burglaries, but nothing leaps out, so she heads back to her office at an APD satellite office in East Austin to catch up on paperwork. Herbers has worked in Victim Services for nearly five years: four of those years as a counselor in the human trafficking unit, then four months as supervisor over the sex crimes and child abuse unit, and now, as supervisor over domestic violence and human trafficking counselors.

Herbers estimates that during her time at APD, she has worked around 1,300 cases (she says, on average, sex crimes counselors carry about 100 cases and domestic violence counselors carry about 50). While reviewing the massive spreadsheet where she keeps details about the cases and clients she’s worked with, one of those clients calls. She is a woman whom Herbers has been working with for three years.

“I just want to check where your head’s at,” Herbers says after the client describes a recent incident in which she says someone attacked her with a sledgehammer. “Do you want me to ask who did it?” Herbers asks. The client has been a victim of sex trafficking and sexual assaults, multiple times over. She’s also unhoused. On the phone, she asks that Herbers “call SAFE every day” to see if their at-capacity shelter can find a bed for her. In the meantime, she asks if Herbers can help her secure a tent to sleep in.

Herbers inquires about specific details about the client’s past and current life – past boyfriends, alleged abusers, her current state of mind. When the client says she is feeling safer after Herbers helped her secure a protective order against one of her abusers, Herbers says she is glad. “Is there anything else you want to talk to me about?” Herbers asks. When the answer is no, Herbers says she will find a tent and get it to her the next day.

“My role with clients like her is making sure she feels comfortable participating in the justice system,” Herbers tells us. “But some days it’s just case management. Listening, suggesting help, asking what she needs and helping her get it. It just depends on the person and what they need that day.”

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