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‘Every day is an awareness month for us’

The Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC) of Monongalia, Preston and Taylor counties’ mission is to “provide a community-based comprehensive service that advocates for the equal rights of all individuals to have control of their lives without violence or threat of violence.”

RDVIC’s services are free and confidential. These include emergency shelter, counseling, support groups, advocacy, community education and career opportunities.

The educational aspect of the organization is prominent even in the agency’s website design. The website features statistics on its home page that reflect the breadth of sexual assault, sexual abuse, physical abuse, stalking and domestic violence.

According to RDVIC, 433,648 Americans 12 and older are sexually assaulted or raped every year; there are 60,000 sexual assault child victims every year and 24 people per minute are raped, physically abused or stalked by an intimate partner.

Individualized services

RDVIC domestic violence specialist Margaret Vondolteren said while her primary role at the agency is working with parents who are experiencing domestic violence and are involved with Child Protective Services (CPS), she is not limited to domestic violence and serves all of RDVIC’s clientele.

“I just have a little bit of extra training to use to support domestic violence victims in that circumstance,” Vondolteren said.

She said in addition to providing support and advocacy resources to individuals who have experienced sexual violence, RDVIC also aims to improve the systems those individuals interact with and to change the rate at which sexual assault and gendered violence occur in local communities through education regarding consent and healthy relationships.

“We’re hoping to create change across a few different levels: individual, system and social,” she said.
Vondolteren compared the services offered by RDVIC to the build-your-own section of a restaurant menu.

“For everyone we work with, we’re bringing them to that build-your-own section of our menu because everyone’s needs are individual and the services and case plans that everyone needs are individual,” she said.

Some of the services are specific to sexual assault survivors. These include going with a survivor to speak to law enforcement, to the hospital and to a forensic exam. This ensures survivors do not have to undergo those procedures and processes alone, and that there is someone from RDVIC present to answer any questions the survivor might have and to advocate or look out for the survivor.

For example, survivors are advised not to eat or drink anything prior to a forensic collection kit so that swabbing can be conducted to collect evidence. Vondolteren said when she accompanies a survivor during an exam, she makes sure the survivor gets food and water afterward.

She said oftentimes, RDVIC staff members just sit with an individual and listen to their needs so they can offer customized options for that person.

“It’s not as simple as, unfortunately, providing just a list. Everything is individual and designed for the individual we’re working with,” she said.

RDVIC also has a staff position for a prevention education specialist. Individuals in this position provide community education about sexual assault. The role is designed to provide some direct education to children about healthy relationships and safety as well as to conduct training — that is, train adults who work with children regularly how to provide the same kind of support and education.

The role of prevention education specialist is currently open at RDVIC. Meanwhile, the other RDVIC staff members have collectively stepped into that role.

“It’s not something that doesn’t happen when that job is not filled, it’s an all-the-time thing for all of us.

That person just has a dedicated audience,” Vondolteren said.

The length of time during which RDVIC works with an individual differs from case to case as well.

There are people who see RDVIC staff members in the hospital but feel comfortable proceeding without contacting the organization again. There are others who work with RDVIC for years.

“Both kinds of situations are welcome because some people recover a little bit easier or have better support networks and other people really need to lean on us for that support network, so we will hang around and keep in touch with them for as long as they need it,” she said.

Client confidentiality

According to Vondolteren, RDVIC works under strict confidentiality policies, as does every federally funded rape crisis or domestic violence crisis center. These policies are rooted in the Violence Against Women Act — one of the main sources of funding for agencies like RDVIC — and the Victims of Crime Act.

Both acts state that centers like RDVIC must do everything possible to protect client confidentiality with the exception of state mandatory reporting laws.

All staff at RDVIC are mandatory reporters. If they learn of a vulnerable child or adult who is in need of services, they are required to disclose that through the CPS or Adult Protective Services (APS) hotline. Vondolteren said everything else is confidential.

“We cannot and do not disclose client information except when it’s a legal requirement, and we talk to our clients very openly about that,” she said.

Diverse donations

RDVIC accepts a wide range of donation. Where those donations go depends on what is donated, but many are given directly to clients.

For instance, RDVIC often receives donations of home goods, which are given to clients when they relocate from the RDVIC emergency shelter to their own homes. These donations include kitchen supplies and furniture.

Clothes are also often donated to RDVIC. Those are given to clients who come into the RDVIC emergency shelter and don’t have anything, or who go to the hospital for a sexual assault evidence collection kit, have their clothes taken as evidence and would otherwise have to leave the hospital wearing scrubs or whatever alternative clothing is available at the facility.

Vondolteren said since RDVIC is a nonprofit organization and does not pay sales tax and has connections to service providers, sometimes financial donations are ideal. RDVIC can do things with money that individuals can’t.

“If we wanted to go and buy specific clothing items for our clients, we can go and get them tax-free, so sometimes money is better. There’s also just a large number of things that a lot of people need that the best way to help them is to help them pay for it,” she said.

Monetary donations can help RDVIC clients take care of back utility bills that must be paid for them to get into independent housing and make sure they have internet and cellphone access so they can look for jobs.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, RDVIC received donations of cleaning supplies. The agency gave some of those supplies directly to clients while reserving some for use in the maintenance of RDVIC’s emergency shelter.

Vondolteren said if RDVIC has an excess of donated supplies the organization finds difficult to manage, they occasionally pass on some of it to other organizations such as Christian Help, which are better equipped to handle it.

RDVIC staff members also work to support other local nonprofit organizations, including volunteer work with other nonprofits. Vondolteren is a member of the Taylor County Collaborative Family Resource Network board of directors and also volunteers with the agency.

“We do a lot of things for other agencies because a lot of these agencies do a lot to support our clients,” she said.

She said RDVIC has agreements with some other agencies so if another agency knows of someone who needs RDVIC’s help, they will send the individual RDVIC’s way and vice-versa. Many clients require coordinated services between organizations, which is always done with client permission and participation.

The importance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Vondolteren said she is not a sexual assault survivor, and she did not want to speak for survivors on the topic of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. However, she said some of the sexual assault survivors the organization works with struggle with awareness months.

“For survivors, and to a lesser extent for advocates, the awareness months are not for us. Our clients are aware. Every day is an awareness month for us. We are always aware of what we might encounter, just in a day’s work,” she said.

However, she said awareness months provide opportunities for RDVIC as an organization to draw attention to the work it does and ask people to make commitments — because when there are events like Sexual Assault Awareness Month, people pay attention.

RDVIC hopes to gain support and enact some of the social change the agency is built around while people are taking the time to pay attention to the work those organizations do and, most importantly, the actual people those organizations serve.

Vondolteren said the attention awareness months command is always going to be good as long as it results in action.

“That is what the awareness months mean for us, is that we are going to try and get as much attention as possible and turn it into as much action as possible,” she said.

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