Helping Hand for Crime Victims : Volunteers in Manhattan Beach Try to Ease Trauma

Times Staff Writer

The woman was awakened by a cat scratching at the side of her bed.

In the dim light from a window, she could see the shapes of two men moving around the room. She nudged her husband to awaken him. With frantic eye and hand signals, she warned him of the presence of the intruders and told him to lie still. They waited in frozen silence until the men left the upstairs bedroom, then waited for another half-hour until they were sure the intruders had left their home.

"The woman felt the burglary was the most traumatic experience in her life," said Jean Nance, a volunteer member of the city's new Victim's Assistance Team. "She refused to sleep in the upstairs room. There was a great fear that the burglars would come back."

Some victims feel they have been "personally violated," said Joyce Davis, another member of the team sponsored by the Manhattan Beach Police Department. "The home is an extension of oneself, which makes a burglary almost like rape for some people."

Fear of Repeat

In an effort to rid themselves of that feeling, victims may wash all the clothes in the house and call in carpet cleaners, said Davis, a retired math teacher and school administrator. "If the feeling isn't dispelled, one way or another," she said, "the victims may become almost paranoid with fears that they will be burglarized again."

Nance, a retired executive secretary, said most of nearly 100 burglary victims contacted by the team since the first of the year--the city averages more than one residential burglary a day--appeared to be taking their experiences in stride. But even the most self-sufficient victims appreciate a sign that somebody cares, she said, and immediate assistance may be crucial in the recovery of those who are emotionally traumatized.

Immediate assistance may be crucial for those who are emotionally traumatized.

People who need more help than the sympathetic volunteers can provide are referred to professional agencies for more extensive counseling. Officer Andy Harrod, who supervises the Victim's Assistance Team, said his volunteers also help prevent repeat crimes by advising victims on security measures that can be taken in the home, such as installing locks and burglar alarms and marking their valuables with engraving tools.

When suspects are arrested, the volunteers encourage victims to testify and will accompany them to court, thus improving conviction rates, he said.

The third member of the new team is Carol Kerster, a Torrance marriage and family counselor who has volunteered to counsel victims without charge and to assist in training new recruits for the program.

"Before we started this program," Harrod said, "crime victims were left pretty much on their own after the police report was taken. Now these ladies are extending a helping hand on behalf of the city and the police."

Harrod said he planned to expand the program gradually with more volunteers, who may also offer assistance to victims of other crimes, such as rape, assault, car theft and armed robbery.

Davis and Nance said they met while working as area coordinators in the city's Neighborhood Watch program. Nance said her own home has never been burglarized, "but I've always felt a sympathy for victims of any crime. Now I have a chance to help them in a direct and personal way."

Need for Listener

Gaining a victim's trust is the biggest hurdle for volunteers, said Davis, who worked for several years in a similar program in Pasadena. "But once the trust is established, it's amazing how outgoing people become.

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