A Womanspace booth set up at Robbinsville’s National Night Out to spread awareness about the Domestic Violence Response Team and other services offered by the company. (File photo, courtesy Womenspace Facebook page.)

When a domestic violence crisis escalates to the point where the police are called, victims sometimes don’t know where to turn. They’re often left confused, scared and unsure of their options.

And that’s where a member of the Domestic Violence Response Team steps in.

Volunteers with the 20-year-old program provide victims of domestic violence with the tools, support and information they need following a crisis, whether that’s a temporary restraining order or shelter for the night. A Sexual Assault Victim Response Team was also recently established.

The first team of volunteers was put together in 1998 and was started as a collaboration between Womanspace executive director Pat Hart and the East Windsor Police Department. Now, every police department in Mercer County—including those specific to Rider University, Princeton University and The College of New Jersey—is covered under the DDVRT and SAVRT umbrella. This year’s training starts in March at the Ewing Police Department. Another session is set for the fall.

Program coordinator Heidi Mueller says at first, some felt the mandatory 40-hour training requirement would scare off potential volunteers. But 45 people signed up that first year, and the manual they put together at the time ended up being used statewide as a response team best practices guide. Now, volunteers must complete 80 hours of training to meet both domestic violence and sexual assault qualifications, since Womanspace is considered a dual agency, serving both domestic violence and sexual assault victims. But the added time commitment hasn’t deterred many volunteers—registration still routinely fills up.

“We try to train people to not say ‘This is what you need to do,’ because that’s what’s been happening their entire lives.”

A response team advocate’s job starts once a victim—the programs are gender inclusive, so they don’t just deal with women, though the majority of victims they serve are women—arrives at the police station. Sometimes a victim goes in on their own volition, and other times a neighbor might overhear a dispute and call the police—whenever they show up, regardless of how they got there, the police department calls the team member who is scheduled to advocate on that given day.

“The reasons run the gamut,” Mueller said. “Basically, we’re there to listen, first of all, without judgment and to find out what their needs are and how to help them. We don’t tell them what to do. We don’t tell them, ‘You should do this.’ We give them options and have them make the decisions, educated options like a temporary restraining order, what does that look like, what’s the next step, and how can we help facilitate that process.”

All meetings are private and confidential, Mueller said. They provide the victim with physical documents and resources only if it’s safe to bring them home. Womanspace offers counseling, and the organization has its own court advocate to help with things beyond that visit to the police station, like finalizing a restraining order in court.

The training covers everything from listening exercises and examining how women are portrayed in the media to shelter services and elder abuse. There are sessions on domestic violence effects on children, diversity and male victims. One of the most important skills they learn, though, said volunteer Susan, is the language they use when meeting a victim. It’s important not to be forceful, because they’re often getting it from all sides—from their abuser, and from family members who say things like “I would just leave, if I were you” and “I would never put up with something like that.”

“The abusers control the victim in every part of their life,” said Susan, who asked to withhold her last name for safety reasons. “We try to train people to not say ‘This is what you need to do,’ because that’s what’s been happening their entire lives. Someone has been telling them, ‘If only you would do this.’ It’s not ‘You need’ or ‘You should.’ It’s ‘This is what you can do’ or ‘You might want to think about…’”

Most domestic violence cases are all about power and control, Mueller said. It’s the common thread that connects nearly all the victims volunteers speak to.

One of the most helpful resources advocates use is the “Power and Control Wheel,” a pie chart that lays out abuse tactics beyond physical violence: coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, using children, economic abuse, gender privilege and denying, minimizing and blaming.

The wheel has been the source of many a-ha moments in that room at a police station, Mueller said. Victims don’t always realize they’re being groomed to accept blame for physical abuse, or that abuse takes other forms, like humiliation or controlling aspects of their partner’s life.

“When we tell them that everything is confidential, they really open up to us because they know that we’re not going to tell the police or anybody else what they’re telling us,” Mueller said. “We’re there to help them. That’s what our goal is. When they realize that, that’s when they’ll talk. You show them that wheel, and the next thing you know, they’re pointing all the way around the wheel. It’s very powerful.”

Mueller reflected on one instance where a man hit his wife while driving. A police officer happened to be driving behind them, and he pulled them over. The woman defended her husband, and it wasn’t until they got to the police station that she learned it was illegal to hit your wife. Victims, Mueller said, sometimes need a little bit of guidance on what exactly constitutes abuse, even if it seems obvious to an outside party.

Susan agreed.

“They were in love,” she said. “These were relationships that were their dream. They had found their prince charming. Everyone thought she was so lucky because he was such a great guy. And he didn’t do it all the time. Many women don’t want the relationship to end. They just want the abuse to end. Every time something happens, frequently there’s the apologies. ‘I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again. It only happened because it was a full moon or I had too much to drink or you pushed my buttons.’ The victims blame themselves. Every story has that thread through it, of how that control can be pretty invisible because that’s your life.”

Susan said there’s also a misconception that only poor or uneducated women are abused. There is no socioeconomic bias, she said. It happens in every municipality, and there are endless ways abusers can lord over their partners.

“If they don’t have a really good job, their quality of life and the quality of life of their children is going to change dramatically, and they know that because the abuser will up the ante and he will cut them off of everything,” Mueller said. “It’s not an easy thing when people say ‘You just need to leave.’ It’s that way with rich people and poor people.”

‘I think especially men, they interact with [an abuser], and there’s two sides. Even some women. It’s all about victim blaming.’

While working on cases, volunteers learn to separate themselves from the victim—it would be impossible to be an advocate without that, Mueller said.

“You kind of learn to understand that you give them as much information as you possibly can,” Susan said. “If there’s a really concerning call that you feel frustrated by, you call Heidi, and then we talk it out. We have to learn to know that whatever that was done that day has to be enough for now.”

But there is the odd case that sticks out. For Mueller, it was a young woman, eight months pregnant, whose partner controlled just about every aspect of her life. Womanspace coordinated with the police department to safely get her out of the situation. They took her to a safe house, but once she got there, she said she was running to the store.

“She walked out, and she never came back,” Mueller said. “I still think about her today, what happened to her.”

Sometimes victims accept an advocate’s advice, and sometimes, like with the pregnant woman, they don’t, but it’s important to remain nonjudgmental either way, Susan said.
“It’s really trying to help people understand how difficult it is to leave an abusive relationship and not to judge the people who are in them,” she said.

It’s especially important, she added, to never blame the victim.

“We live in a man’s world,” Mueller said. “You hear what was coming from the president [about former aide Rob Porter, accused of domestic violence]. ‘I believe him. He’s a nice guy.’ I think especially men, they interact with this person, and there’s two sides. Even some women. It’s all about victim blaming.”

Mueller recalls one case where the victim made a number of excuses for her husband: “He didn’t really mean it,” “He just lost his temper.” But Mueller really connected with her when she asked if her husband had ever hit his boss in a fit of rage. The violence is not connected only to anger when the abuser only attacks a partner.

“They’re frequently very nice guys to the outside world,” Susan said. “And people think that they have a good relationship because everyone is playing their role in public. It’s when you get home that it’s different. We’re always trying to reframe the question, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ The question is ‘Why does he hit her?’ I’ve been working on this since 1991. The story in 2018 is still the same.”

The registration process includes a background check, so early application is encouraged. For more information, or to register for future trainings, contact Mueller at dvvrt@womanspace.org or Alison Daks at sass@womanspace.org. Phone: (609) 394-0136.