The University of Texas at Austin Police Department (UTPD) Victims Advocate Network (VAN), provides immediate crisis intervention services at the scenes of crimes or distressing events. Despite changes to operations during the pandemic, the team of VAN employees and volunteers continued providing care to UT community members and beyond, according to Noelle Newton, Director of Campus Safety Communications.
According to Newton, VAN is a grant-funded program established by UTPD in 2019. It is led by two master’s degree-level social workers who have an office within the police department and oversee an on-call network of 20 volunteer UT staff members.
Program Coordinator Marica Kelley, LMSW, is a Steve Hicks School of Social Work alumnus and one of the VAN social workers.
According to Kelley, VAN was designed to offer a 24/7 in-person response upon the request of UT police officers to provide mental health first aid, victim advocacy, practical assistance and linkage to appropriate campus or community resources for ongoing support. In mid-March that response greatly changed to primarily providing support by phone due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Until that point, we had not fully realized just how heavily we relied on our ability to read facial expressions and body language in-person when assessing and supporting those in crisis, so to suddenly lose those tools left many of us feeling lost," Kelley said. "But I knew we could do this work this way, and we could learn to do it well."
Kelley and VAN Case Manager Danica Morgan, LMSW, reached out to their partner contacts at the SAFE Alliance who operate a local 24-hour crisis hotline. From there, the VAN team spent the summer training on best practices of providing phone and video support. Kelley and Morgan developed a remote response guide for the volunteer advocates, which included information on active listening, validation, needs assessment, solution exploration, support assessment, follow-up planning, and call closure.
Volunteers went through practice runs of a call from start to finish to get comfortable with the new process. For officers, VAN supplied bags containing an informational brochure to hand out on scene. All of this was done to ensure no lapse in service.
"VAN has absolutely continued our assistance to the community,” Kelley said. “In fact, we feel more needed than ever. We understand that with the pandemic, everyone is simultaneously experiencing an ongoing distressing event, so when that is the baseline and then a community member experiences or witnesses a crime or distressing event that requires a police response, they are in even greater distress and very much deserving of support."
Kelley offers the following advice for anyone who may know someone who is experiencing difficulty during this time.
"I try to not approach my response to a person who has experienced a distressing event from a place of advice-giving,” Kelley said. “Instead of taking charge, we aim to be person-centered in understanding that those we are helping are often the experts of their own needs. The most universal advice that we provide is probably the encouragement that they activate their support systems–whether that be family, friends, or one of the many resources on campus that are here to support them. The most helpful reassurance we can provide is that they don't have to navigate this experience on their own."
Volunteers commit to 16 hours of on-call availability per month. Shifts are four hours long, and flexible scheduling options are available. Those interested can visit the VAN web page for more information.
"We are truly in awe of the level of courage and dedication from our folks who are so passionate about service to others,” Kelley said. “I am so proud that the leadership and officers at UTPD genuinely embrace this team approach to conduct effective care-taking for our community. This is love work. This is putting our love for our community into tangible action."