Advocates are an essential component of the services DVSN offers. These dedicated and compassionate volunteers make DVSN’s Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program (DVVAP) and Court Support Program (CSP) possible. DVSN is proud, grateful, and fortunate to have many Advocates willing to donate their time to support survivors. This role is a challenging and crucial one, but what does it entail? What exactly is a DVSN Advocate?
What is an Advocate?
Advocates are members of the community who support abuse survivors in multiple ways. Advocates may provide information or refer clients to services and resources they particularly need. They may assist with safety planning or help guide a client through a crisis point. Or they may just be someone to talk to, someone to support the survivor by listening and believing. As one DVSN Advocate put it, “I am that friendly non-judgmental neighbor who they can brainstorm with, vent to, laugh with, and cry with.”
When a client calls our Help Line (888-399-6111, Toll-Free & Confidential) or is sent to us by a referring partner, it is a DVVAP Advocate to whom they speak. When they need help navigating the court system, a CSP Advocate can be there in person to lend support, guidance, and knowledge. While one is a voice on the phone and the other a body at the courthouse, both roles are fundamentally the same. Advocates are there to support survivors in whatever way they need.
Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program Advocates (DVVAP) fill at least two 3-hour shifts per month with a minimum commitment of a year. According to one Advocate, “Each shift I take is different. The clients are different, the situations are different, the needs are different, but each is rewarding; I know that I made a difference.” During their shift, Advocates may respond to Help Line calls, check in on existing clients, and/or reach out to newly referred clients. One Advocate describes starting out a typical shift, “I review my assigned call list and available resources so I am as prepared for my outreach calls as possible knowing that the client will lead the conversation, so I may not be as prepared as I had hoped.”
The flow of a call is unique to each client. Advocates must assess what kind of support each client needs and how best to help them. For some, a direct approach works well: “I ask the client – ‘what support would help you best?’ They may need one or more of the following: financial assistance, counseling for themselves or a loved one, food, a support group, legal advice, assistance with their children or parent, housing, or other support unique to their situation. I also promote self-care. What does the client do for fun or to relax? I remind them that taking care of themselves is paramount.”
For others there may be a need to tread more carefully, probing to discover what might be most helpful to that client. Perhaps the most helpful thing is just to listen, to be a confidential ear for the client to share their story. Due to reasons of safety and confidentiality, not all calls result in contacts. Advocates may go through a 3-hour shift, preparing to speak with 5 or 6 clients but not able to reach any of them. On days like that, one Advocate bears in mind, “We do the best we can… if we don’t try who will?”
Court Support Program (CSP) Advocates have the same one-year minimum commitment with their shifts consisting of two morning and/or afternoon sessions per month at the Concord District Court. CSP Advocates are familiar with how the court system works, what the restraining order process entails, and what a survivor is likely to encounter at a hearing. They may be on hand to answer clients’ questions at court or accompany them to a hearing. One CSP Advocate talks about how they assist clients: “My role is to simply be there, point out the important bases to be touched and above all [to] lend emotional support, in other words I am their cheerleader.” “Just being with them in court is calming,” says another, “Many are by themselves and if it’s the first time court can be intimidating. But Advocates walk them through the process.”
Additional Advocate Roles
Advocates are on call to meet with clients who walk-in to police stations for help with an abusive situation. They also respond to requests from Emerson Hospital healthcare professionals and social workers to help patients in the emergency room and other departments at Emerson. Advocates are available to provide guidance to Councils on Aging as well as several local town social workers or community resource coordinators who encounter individuals and families living with abuse.
Advocates volunteer with DVSN for many reasons. Some may have worked in a field that often interacts with survivors, such as the legal system or therapy, and want to use their knowledge to help in a new way. For others, domestic violence may have touched their lives in some way. One Advocate shares she is a survivor herself. Many are looking for a way to give back and make an impact. “No one should have to live in fear,” cites one. Another responded to a blurb in the paper, “…it made me think – I can do that; I too can make a difference. It also made me think – we don’t need DV Advocates here… do we?”
The often “hidden” and personal nature of intimate partner violence was a motivator for another Advocate: “I feel strongly that domestic abuse is far more prevalent than known and the emotions involved are so complex that the women can use a neutral mirror to help them make a decision.” While the majority of DVSN clients and Advocates are women, anyone can be a victim or a supporter. One male Advocate cites this imbalance as a factor in his decision to volunteer: “…domestic violence is an area that I felt needed more men involved in helping to address the issues.”
CSP Advocates frequently prefer the “face-to-face” interaction in court versus being a voice on the phone. As one Advocate details, “I had worked previously with both offenders and crime survivors, and I knew how much the system is skewed to the offender. I wanted to work more directly with survivors to better understand what they experience and to be able to better assist these people who often don’t get much assistance.”
Tenets of Advocacy
DVSN’s attitude toward advocacy values confidentiality, peer support, and empowerment. Advocates are people survivors can talk to privately. Some clients may be able to open up more knowing what they say is completely confidential and will go no farther. According to one Advocate, “Clients feel safe telling us their stories.” It can be difficult to speak about such an intimate issue even with close friends and family. “Often, they don’t want to overburden friends and family with their struggles,” another explains, “and are appreciative of an additional person to lend an ear and offer support.” Some clients may not have anyone they feel they can confide in. Many clients fear that no one will believe them. DVSN Advocates help break this damaging isolation by offering support from a community member that the client does not know personally. They are still a peer but one specifically trained and knowledgeable to assist them. As one Advocate puts it, “Everyone should have someone to talk to without judgment.”
This support Advocates lend is just that, support. They are not there to make decisions for the clients or to tell them what to do. Clients are already facing controlling behavior from abusive partners and do not need to compound this with further removal of agency, no matter how well-meant. Rather, Advocates offer information and resources to help the client choose the best path forward for themselves, to regain some of the autonomy that may have been lost in their abusive relationship. “Regardless of the direction the call goes,” relates one Advocate, “I do the best I can to enable and empower the client to do what is best for them. They know their situation best.” Says another, “I see DVSN’s approach to helping DV survivors as a win-win for the client, the community, and the Advocates.”.
Training to Be an Advocate
In order to begin working as an Advocate for DVSN, one must complete a comprehensive 40-hour classroom training program with an additional 10-12 hours of field training. DVSN offers trainings twice a year, in the spring and fall, one being held evenings and weekends and the other daytime on weekdays to accommodate varying schedules. Due to COVID-19, three trainings have had to be cancelled but plans are in the works to once again hold a training in fall 2021. Training groups include not only those planning to become Advocates but also police officers and DVSN community resource partners who wish to be better educated about abuse and the best ways to help survivors. “I was motivated to take DVSN training after helping out with an employee at work dealing with DV,” explains one Advocate, “and around the same time, helping a friend with a DV, mental health and substance abuse situation with her child. Both situations were dangerous, and I was relieved they were both resolved safely, but I welcomed training to help understand them better, and how to address situations if they arose again.”
Topics covered in DVSN’s training include not only the roles of Advocates and how to assist with things like risk assessment and safety planning, but also dynamics of domestic violence, cultural awareness, batterers’ psychology, effects on children, sexual assault, and the roles of police officers and the courts. Describing what she learned, one Advocate remarked, “The training offered by DVSN taught me that DV can happen anywhere, to anyone, it doesn’t know demographic boundaries.” Following training, new Advocates must continue learning through shadowing and mentoring shifts before speaking to clients in their own. DVSN also provides Advocates opportunities to meet twice monthly to learn and share with each other.
Challenges of Being an Advocate
Advocacy is challenging work. Some Advocates cite the difficulties of identifying more subtle controlling behavior, such as emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. Arming clients with the best information to empower their decisions can be tricky. Some clients may not recognize the complexities of their situation and how things may escalate. One Advocate talks about “never really knowing what you’ll encounter when you make that call. Will you even be able to assist?” “I feel so helpless sometimes,” comments another, “when it seems so little can be done.”
The most common challenge Advocates mention is getting too invested in their clients’ troubles. One Advocate shared that she struggles with “enabling and empowering a client without taking on their situation as my own.” According to another, “It is a challenge to discuss a dangerous situation with a client because you worry about their safety…” A third talks about, “…learning to let go when encountering a difficult case…” This is known as secondary trauma and can negatively impact many aspects of one’s life. So much so that a section of DVSN’s training focuses on self-care techniques to mitigate secondary trauma.
Benefits of Being an Advocate
Though challenges abound, rewards of advocacy are plentiful as well. According to one Advocate, “It can be a challenge helping a client find their inner voice and strength, but that is also what I enjoy the most! Every client is special!” “Oh, it is so great,” shares another, “when you make a call to someone you’ve spoken with before and s/he says, ‘Things are going really well!’ They’re surprised, I’m surprised, and we’re both celebrating.” Others remark on how much they have learned and grown through volunteering as an Advocate and being “proud that I am part of the solution.” One Advocate appreciates when clients “overcome such hard circumstances and seeing them build their self-confidence – truly inspiring!” “I do feel that I have made a difference with many of the clients,” reports another, “and that is most satisfying!”
It’s always encouraging to hear positive reactions from clients. One Advocate shares, “More than once, a client has said, ‘I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.’ Of course, they’re the ones who’ve done the really hard work of taking back their lives. When you point that out, they say, ‘But you were there, and you listened, and you believed me.’” Another Advocate expands on the importance of this: “Clients have shared how gratifying it is to have someone simply understand and accept as real, their situation, validating their experience.” A third comments that, “In general, people seem relieved to know that there’s help in their community, and that they don’t have to go through hard times alone.”
DVSN is lucky to have such a great group of Advocates who have also formed connections with each other. One Advocate shares, “I have found a sense of community from the DVSN group that I did not anticipate.” According to another, “DVSN is like a very special family, and I am honored to have been an Advocate for all the years I have been!”
Interested in becoming an advocate? Email your contact info to DVSN.firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you the dates and application for our next training when we have finalized the details!
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