Melrose police hope a new partnership with regional nonprofit RESPOND Inc. will help the city better care for victims of domestic abuse, and possibly prevent future cases by helping victims extricate themselves from unhealthy relationships.
The program began at the start of the year. Thanks to a grant through the Violence Against Women Act, Victoria Helberg, a high risk program specialist with Somerville-based RESPOND, has been splitting time between Melrose, Malden, and Wakefield, connecting victims of abuse with a range of services.
“We provide case management services, we provide emotional support, domestic violence support group, court accompaniment, housing services, shelter services,” Helberg said.
High-risk cases are just what they sound like, those in which the victim may be in serious danger. The priority in such cases is getting the victim to safety as soon as possible.
“You get somebody who’s in a domestic violence situation, they might need housing, or they might need a safety plan, so that’s what we’re hoping to do with them right away,” Helberg said.
Helberg’s specialty is working with police departments to counsel victims of abuse.
“I’ll get the calls from the police department, and then I’ll follow up with them,” she said. “It helps build rapport between the community and the police department, because there’s a civilian advocate who’s reaching out on behalf of the police to show, ‘Melrose is really concerned about your safety, what can we do to help?’”
Although Melrose and other communities already have dedicated domestic abuse officers, some victims are more willing to talk to someone who isn’t affiliated with police.
“I’ve definitely had instances where people have wanted me to relay everything we discussed to the police, and then I’ve had people who’ve wanted me to keep it confidential, and I am a confidential advocate,” Helberg said. “I think it’s really helped people feel more comfortable about reaching out.”
Melrose Police Detective Daniel Ehlers, who heads the department’s domestic violence division, said partnering with RESPOND will expand the scope of services available to victims.
“This is a way to get a victim much-needed services quicker and more efficiently, RESPOND is a 24-hour operation, they have people who can help with housing,” he said. “If you need to change housing, they have connections to the different housing authorities all around, and can help cut some of the red tape and help people with all of the paperwork.”
The group can also direct victims to experts in other fields.
“They can put people in touch with pro bono lawyers to help them along, maybe they’re getting divorced after this,” said Ehlers. “And a lot of people need some sort of therapy or counseling, and they can provide that or direct people to where they need to go.”
MPD Chief Michael Lyle said the partnership will help the department combat domestic violence.
“I think it’s a great tool for us,” he said. “RESPOND has a relationship with the court system, they’re 24-seven, so on weekends, when we really need assistance, they’re available to come out.”
Melrose Alliance Against Violence, the local nonprofit dedicated to preventing domestic assault and aiding its victims, has been serving the city for decades. Executive Director Rebecca Mooney said RESPOND will only enhance that mission.
“We’re tiny, we’re a really small agency, so we really rely on partnerships with a lot of other organizations,” she said. “This will dovetail very nicely with our work here in the community. I would say our strength is really raising awareness in the community, so people will come forward and get help.”
MAAV conducts awareness-raising events all year, including several coming up in February and March, to mark the former as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. The group also educates young people about abuse, so that victims, bystanders, and potential perpetrators can recognize and fight it.
“A lot of our work focuses on trying to stop the problem before it starts,” Mooney said. “It’s giving people the information, but it’s also kind of a signal to everyone in the community that we’re aware of this issue, we’re not burying our heads in the sand about it, it’s out there and we’re aware of it and there’s help available.”
That’s an important message, because a recent state law designed to shield victims’ identities has led to the unintended consequence of decreasing reminders that domestic violence is still very much a problem.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Ehlers said. “The biggest misconception is people don’t think it happens, because we can’t put it in any of the police logs. Due to the new Mass laws, it was taken out to help protect victims, and also to protect people who have been accused and not convicted yet.”
But the problem hasn’t gone away. According to Lyle, Melrose police responded to 14 domestic-violence calls in the first month of 2018 alone. The absence of specific cases from the news may contribute to the isolation many victims feel, making it all the more important that groups like RESPOND and MAAV exist to counteract that trend.
“Some people feel that there’s no way out, that’s why some victims stay in relationships so long,” Ehlers said. “If you show them that there’s a way out, they might take it.”
Melrose Alliance Against Violence will hold several events in the coming months designed to educate teens about health relationships, and teach them to identify and prevent unhealthy ones. Upcoming are showings of a film about dating violence, MAAV’s annual Community Coffee House, and the group’s first-ever White Ribbon Day event in Melrose. Watch the group’s Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/maav.org/, for announcements and details of all upcoming events.