Law enforcement helps WISE reach victims of domestic violence

BIG RAPIDS — Sometimes a person seeks out help when they need it. Other times help is directed to them, showing up and offering a listening ear, advocacy and support for when a person is ready.

As part of its work in Mecosta, Osceola and Newaygo counties, Women’s Information Service, Inc. assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. While in some instances WISE doesn’t become involved in offering support until long after a trauma, the organization also works to respond immediately after an incident if needed.

For years, WISE has had a domestic violence response team (DVRT), as well as a sexual assault response team (SART). Receiving referrals from law enforcement and medical professionals, the goal of the teams is to act fast if someone has been the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, said WISE Executive Director Jane Currie.

“This way, people get a quick response,” Currie explained. “We know the sooner we make the contact, the sooner the victim gets exactly what they need. And sometimes they aren’t sure what they need, so we help assess if they need to go to the shelter, need other housing or what particularly we can do for them.”

The team could be called at any time, morning or night. Sometimes members are contacted when police are still on scene, other times the next day. While it is called a response team, there is not always a physical response requested.

Often times the person does not wish to have follow up contact with WISE. In this case, the statistics and information are simply recorded by WISE in order to get some idea of the frequency of these type incidents in the area. Reporting to the DVRT and SART is not mandatory for law enforcement and does not account for every incident of domestic violence or sexual assault.

The main job for police is to investigate a crime and make an arrest if warranted, said Mecosta County Undersheriff Jim Taylor.

While it is not required, officers try to pass information about WISE to the victims, supplying them with an informational card.

“We give them the number to WISE and it’s up to them to call at a later date if they want,” Taylor said. “We also ask if they want contact right now from the response team and if they do, we advise dispatch and pass that information along so WISE can call them.”

If the person doesn’t want WISE involved, law enforcement still makes the information available to victims, Taylor said. Dispatch also is informed for record keeping, noting the victim was given information about WISE, but didn’t wish to have contact.

“We want victims to have knowledge about the resources available to them,” Taylor said. “The good thing about the response team is we can encourage them to get the help they may need from the right people.”

In 2016, 71 DVRT calls originated in Mecosta County and 15 were from Osceola County. The SART received four calls for Mecosta County and six for Osceola County in 2016.

Of the 71 Mecosta County domestic violence reports, 22 people ended up starting services with WISE. Three of the 15 from Osceola County

Whitney Buffa, WISE program director, said the most typical call for the DVRT comes from dispatch, who passes along the information of the parties involved in a domestic violence encounter, gives details about the incident and whether the perpetrator was arrested.

“After that, if the person wants contact, we try to call the person back very quickly because we know if the perpetrator was arrested they will be in jail for at least 24 hours,” she said. “We try to reach the victim within that time frame to see what they need.”

Ideally, the person will choose to seek help from WISE, but often times the victim does not wish to do so, Buffa added.

“That call might be the extent of the contact that we have with them,” she said. “Some people aren’t ready to let us in. Maybe they have other social work agencies they are working. We may never know why a person doesn’t activate services with us.”

While many people associate WISE with its shelter, there are a host of other services the organization can help its clients with.

“A big thing people don’t realize about WISE is that 80 percent of our clients never come into shelter,” Buffa said. “People think of the shelter when they think of WISE, but a majority of our work is on an outreach basis. The people we have contact with because of response team, they often don’t come into shelter. They stay with family and friends or even in their own home. They may just need some support.”

Some outreach services include WISE advocates offering support by going to court with a client, helping with finding new housing and filing personal protection orders and simple divorce papers.

The DVRT is not often dispatched to the scene of an instance of domestic violence, but it has happened and team members will show up if requested.

“There’s been times we’ve gone to pick someone up and taken them into shelter,” Buffa said. “It’s not like the sirens go off and the team activates. It’s more we get the call this person needs services and people who are on-call respond. What the person needs and wants dictates what the response team does.”

Although statistically not many victims end up wanting contact from WISE initially, Buffa said down the road some eventually reach out and that’s exactly what makes the effort worth it.

“We always say it takes seven to eight times for someone to successfully leave in cases of domestic violence,” she said. “That DVRT call may have been the first attempt to leave and later we find they were finally able to leave.

“It sounds like the process is not important because so many refuse services initially, but we do find people who come to us and we look back to find a DVRT call in their history. That’s important. That’s the way this is effective.”