Program provides relief for victims, survivors of crime

They like it best when the phone doesn’t ring.

For workers at the Advocacy Program at USF, a ringing phone too often signals another victim of stalking, sexual assault, domestic violence or rape. Since its inception in February 1992, the Advocacy Program has provided assistance to over 3,000 victims of robbery, stalking, sexual battery, relationship, domestic violence and other crimes, according to program advocates Thea Poellinger and Nora Penia.

“Some of our most common issues include stalking, especially with the increased use of Internet communication through e-mail and instant messengers, as well as relationship violence,” said Penia.

Prior to this semester, the program was known as the Victims’ Advocacy Program. The name change was made because of the connotations of the name, Penia said.

“The word ‘victims’ is a barrier,” said Penia, director of the Advocacy Program. “(For the program to help), the person must first identify themselves as a victim.”

Penia, who has been with the program for almost four years as an advocate, educator and volunteer coordinator, replaced Mary Reid this semester as program director. The position became vacant after Reid became the evening advocate, making herself available to anyone seeking help after business hours.

All three members have been designated by the Florida attorney general’s office as victim service practitioners. The license enables the program to further accomplish its mission, Poellinger said.

“The mission of the Advocacy Program is to provide quality, compassionate services to victims and survivors of crime and abuse and to reduce secondary victimization and facilitate healing and recovery,” Poellinger said. “Our secondary purpose is to be a focal point of advocacy and a source of information regarding victim/survivor issues and to work proactively to reduce victimization by class presentations, orientations and other educational opportunities.”

Advocates are available during day and evening hours for consultation and provide a full range of services, such as crisis intervention, options, support, referrals and follow ups, Poellinger said. They are also available 24 hours a day in case of emergency situations. Filing a police report is not a prerequisite to receive help from the program, but advocates are happy to assist clients in reporting an incident to the authorities, filing for a restraining orders, navigating through the court system or applying for victim compensation, Poellinger added.

“Crime victims or survivors may apply for victim compensation … to cover the cost of medical bills, counseling and certain other expenses,” Poellinger said. “The crime must be reported to the police to be eligible to file a claim with victim compensation. But, even without the police being involved, we can listen to what has happened and help them identify what they need to do to solve a problem.”

According to Poellinger, advocates focus on the client’s needs so that each person receives specialized services tailored to his or her situation. The program will also provide services, at the client’s request, to secondary victims, such as family and others close to the client. Advocates can provide them with information about the feelings and trauma that their loved ones might be experiencing.