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Domestic violence response teams a small piece of the puzzle

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Sadhna Singh had just completed crisis violence training to become a member of Atlantic County’s domestic violence and sexual response teams when she got her first call to a local hospital where a victim was waiting.

A young woman — still a teenager — from Atlantic City was sitting up on a hospital bed. When she turned around, Singh saw her eyes were red, not from crying, but from the vessels bursting. It wasn’t until the end of her visit that Singh realized the woman had been strangled.

Volunteer response team members encounter some of the most horrific, gruesome circumstances that result from domestic violence and sexual assault.

While they cannot arrest or prosecute abusers, or entirely rescue or protect victims from harm, they become a rock for victims in the chaos of tragedy, sometimes at a personal cost.

Almost all New Jersey counties have domestic violence response teams, made up of volunteers who respond to police stations and hospitals in the immediate aftermath of a domestic violence incident or sexual assault. They provide victims with emotional support and information on restraining orders, shelters and other options.

“Since we don’t meet them again, I pray and hope that God be with them and that things will get better for them,” Singh said. “Our job is to leave them more informed than when they came in.”

Most of the cases Singh and other volunteers handle in Atlantic County take place in Atlantic City, which had 834 domestic violence-related incidents in 2015. It was more than any other municipality in southeastern New Jersey, according to data from State Police.

Donna D’Andrea, coordinator of the Atlantic County team, which is organized through the Women’s Center, said because Atlantic City is a transient area, sometimes victims are not from the area. In these cases, D’Andrea said, volunteers and advocates make sure to connect them with resources back home.

In the most complicated situations, sometimes a volunteer’s job is just trying to convince a victim they need help, even when they don’t see it themselves.

“I had one call I went on where a woman got her head hit on a large aquarium and refused medical treatment,” she said. “She needed to get her face checked out and was intoxicated at the time, which was the only reason she wasn’t feeling pain. I spent an entire hour convincing her to get on a gurney to go to the hospital, and she went. Sometimes, that’s all an advocate is able to do.”

The Women’s Center holds training about twice a year for people who wish to become part of the domestic violence and sexual assault response team. It currently has about 15 members who sign up to be on call for eight-hour shifts, every day, all day.

Training helps people learn what domestic violence can look like and who can be affected. More than 40 hours of crisis response education and other work are required for volunteers to learn how to respond to people who may be physically, emotionally and psychologically abused.

It’s not as simple as talking to a victim about his or her options, Singh said. Victims may have financial constraints, children may be involved and other things can prevent people from leaving their abusers.

Sometimes, people are in denial that their boyfriend, spouse, parent, child or other is an abuser and that they are a victim at all. Sometimes, victims lie to volunteers about what happened or their circumstances, which can lead to frustration, Singh said.

“I’ve had people say, ‘He’s a really great guy, just not when he’s drinking,’ or, ‘He is a good father and he loves us, he just gets angry sometimes,’” she said.

The job can be draining, emotionally and mentally, experts said.

Gina Ridge, associate vice president at Center for Family Services and coordinator of Cumberland County’s response teams, warned upcoming volunteers at a training session in April that the situations they respond to could be overwhelming, so volunteers need to make sure to find ways to decompress and take care of themselves, too.

“We have new staff who haven’t seen someone severely injured, and I always tell people we react differently when we see visuals. We’re more impacted when we see a battered face,” DeAndrea said. “No matter how well I can prepare someone, I can’t fully prepare them for the first time they will see these things.”

But most of the time, Singh said, she walks away from cases knowing she provided victims with the best support and information she could. She said she always learns something new that can help her become a better advocate, and she can’t picture herself doing anything else.

“It’s actually life-changing,” Singh said. “I grew up in a sheltered, beautiful life, and had the pleasure of never experiencing any of this. But this work has been life-changing. I say, you always walk away with something more than what you give up. As volunteers, that keeps it alive and purposeful for us.”

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609-272-7022 Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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