Victims Helped Through CRISIS : Volunteer Teams Offer Emotional Support at Emergency Scenes

Times Staff Writer

Debra Barbee, a marketing assistant for a computer marketing firm, went home after work to shower and change clothes. Hallie Willoughby, a secretary for the Costa Mesa Planning Commission, had to work late and, to save time, changed clothes at work.

It was Friday night and Willoughby, 31, and Barbee, 28, were getting together at 6. But theirs was not the typical Friday night destination.

They were headed for the Huntington Beach police station, where, for the next eight hours, they would sit waiting for the telephone to ring.

The two Huntington Beach residents are volunteers with Police Crisis Assistance, otherwise known as CRISIS, a pilot program sponsored by the nonprofit Community Service Programs under a grant by the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning.

The CRISIS program, established early last year, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Irvine, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.

The volunteers, who work out of the cities' police stations from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. and are on call at other times, respond at the scene of emergencies at the request of an officer. The two-person CRISIS teams, trained to work in stressful situations, offer emotional support to victims and their families and assist with emergency needs and providing information and referrals.

The calls have frequently concerned incidents of domestic violence or sexual assault, but team members also have encountered a variety of other situations calling for emotional support, such as traffic accidents, burglaries, robberies, suicides and death notifications.

Barbee and Willoughby are typical of the program's more than 40 volunteers, most of whom are women whose occupations include job titles such as nurse, sales clerk, waitress, letter carrier, airline reservation clerk, word processing supervisor, restaurant manager and dietitian.

But although their backgrounds and occupations vary, they share a common bond.

"They're all very motivated," said Brent Buford, CRISIS program director. "They have a true desire to just help their fellow man, and they see this as a way to do that."

"It is," he added, "pretty much altruism at its best."

At 6 p.m., the second floor of the Huntington Beach Police Department is deserted, and, except for the easy-listening music coming from an FM radio station playing over a speaker system, it is uncannily quiet.

In the small, windowless CRISIS team office next to the detective bureau, Barbee and Willoughby have notified the police watch commander and dispatcher that they are on duty.

Although Friday and Saturday nights typically are the busiest shifts for the CRISIS teams--and the Huntington Beach team usually handles more calls than the Irvine or Costa Mesa teams--there is no guarantee that Barbee and Willoughby will be called into action tonight.

And until the phone does ring, they are on their own.

Volunteers, Buford said, typically pass the time reading, knitting, balancing their checkbooks or, if they're students, doing homework.

Time Used for Talk

"I usually bring my Trivial Pursuit," Willoughby said with a smile. "We have access to the TV in the back room, but usually we talk and get to know each other."

She glanced at Barbee, with whom she's worked before, and laughed: "I know her life history, and she knows mine."

Willoughby, who has worked as a clerk for the FBI, a secretary on Gerald Ford's vice-presidential and presidential staffs and as an Army journalist stationed in Germany, said she volunteered for the CRISIS program 14 months ago "because I'm a survivor of many crises."

"As a matter of fact," she said, "I felt with my experiences in learning how to survive that I could pass that along or be a guide to other people. I wanted the experience of helping other people, and I felt this was a good program for that."

Barbee, who is divorced and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, volunteered for the program last July.

'I Love Dealing With People'

"I'm military-oriented, so I've been exposed to various cultures, different types of people and problems," said Barbee, whose father served in the Air Force while she was growing up. "The job I do (as a marketing assistant) is more paper-oriented, and I love dealing with people."

Barbee said she averages two or three CRISIS team shifts a month, and Willoughby, who is divorced and childless, usually volunteers four or five times a month.

"I enjoy it," Willoughby said. "You can sit here and not get any calls--last March three or four times in a row it was absolutely dead, nothing. But the next working period, I had a very interesting call, and it made all those other times worthwhile."

The call involved a traffic accident in which one person was killed and several were injured. Willoughby spent three hours talking to one of the uninjured victims at the scene and at the hospital until the woman's family arrived.

'Mixture of Jobs'

"You can go from a car accident to getting death notifications," Willoughby said. "It's quite a mixture of jobs all under the title of 'crisis.' "

One of the calls that Willoughby remembers most vividly is the death notification she and a team partner had to deliver to the middle-aged son of a woman who had committed suicide. It was the second call she had responded to, and, she said, "it really determined for me that I wanted to stay" in the program.

As they were getting ready to leave, Willoughby recalled, the man "gave us both a big hug. He said he could go home and handle the situation easier now."

She said the man also told them, "I don't envy you."

"People can't get over the fact that they know someone is there for them," observed Barbee. "They say, 'You mean you do this for nothing? ' "

Willoughby acknowledged that some of the calls can take an emotional toll on the team members.

"That's where the partnership comes in, because we really help each other deal with it," she said. "We handle it as partners: We talk about it, and if we want to cry, we cry."

Buford, who works out of an office in the Irvine Police Department annex, has been involved in CRISIS since it started 14 months ago. He began as a volunteer while working days as a restitution and victim specialist for Victim-Witness Assistance, a Community Service Programs endeavor whose primary focus is to offer support and information to victims and witnesses going through the criminal justice system. He took over as CRISIS program director last March.

Buford said CRISIS, which is modeled after a similar program in Pima County, Ariz., is designed "to respond to any type of crisis situation where there's an acute need for services that may go beyond what law enforcement officers can offer or have time to offer." The program receives an average of seven calls a week.

"I'm not saying this program takes the place of the police and that the police aren't caring individuals and don't help these people, but we can take the time to get them calm, to provide them with information and notify relatives," he said. "Generally, the officers don't have the time to do that. They're there to enforce the law. We're there to provide service directly to the victims."

Buford described his own yearlong experience as a CRISIS volunteer as "very rewarding."

Response Is Immediate

"Although I was already in victim services, the difference (as a CRISIS team member) is that we're immediately on the scene," he said. "In my other job, I had seen cases where if somebody had been there immediately, a lot of the problems people were having could have been prevented or ameliorated such as undue anxiety over just not knowing, just being unaware of the services available to them.

"Another reason we're effective is we're not a law enforcement agency and not in uniform. A lot of times people feel a little bit more at ease talking to us, and they're not so apprehensive."

Buford said he believes the three police departments involved in the CRISIS program "on the whole feel we're filling a very big gap and they feel it's quite useful."

"We're extremely pleased with their service, and we consider them an asset to the community," said Capt. Don Jenkins, Huntington Beach Police Department liaison officer to the CRISIS program.

"The value of the CRISIS team," he said, "is that these people have different goals than the police: Police have goals of stopping crime, arresting suspects and putting them in jail. CRISIS is there to help people through emotional trauma, and that's often a time-consuming process."

7 p.m. Willoughby and Barbee are talking about the CRISIS team procedure.

It works this way: An officer in the field who has responded to the scene of a family dispute, for example, radios the police dispatcher, who then calls the CRISIS team. The team drives to the scene and talks to the officer, who gives them basic background information on the case before they enter the home.

"The situation," Barbee noted, "has to be one the officer feels it's safe to go into."

Added Willoughby, "If you feel danger, leave. All of these people have requested our services, but you can usually tell when things are really tense."

Once inside the house, the team members identify themselves and ask whether the couple is willing to talk to them. The team members then take the husband and wife into separate rooms to talk.

Self-Help Approach

"We ask them what has been happening here," Willoughby explained. "During the course of their conversation, we try to get as much information as we can without interrupting."

Willoughby stressed, however, that they don't offer solutions to the couple's marital dispute. "We say, What do you see as a solution?"

They then bring the husband and wife together to discuss their differences.

"If we don't get solutions or compromises, we ask them, 'What do you want from this relationship?' " Willoughby said. "Sometimes you can't reach a solution, and you have to walk away because you could sit there all night and talk to these people."

Referrals Offered

In assessing the situation, the team also may refer the couple to other agencies for counseling. Or, if an economic problem is the underlying cause of the couple's troubles, the team may refer them to a financial aid agency.

8 p.m. The phone rings and Barbee gets up to answer it. It's her 7-year-old daughter, who is home with a relative.

"Hi, honey, how are you?" Barbee says. "Are you being a good girl?"

After Barbee hangs up, the conversation turns to Willoughby's experiences in the Army in Europe, then segues into must-see current movies and a discussion of the night David Letterman demonstrated a suit made of Velcro by sticking himself to a wall. The phone, however, remains silent.

At one point, Barbee gets up and walks to the doorway. "It's warm in here and you just wilt," she observed.

Willoughby, lazily stretched out in her chair, smiled. "It's funny," she said, "when you get a call, it all disappears."

To recruit volunteers, Buford and his two staff members, Lin Fujitsubo and Lydia Enriquez, send flyers to colleges and corporations and to other volunteer agencies. (A training session for volunteers will begin June 4. Further information is available from Buford at 863-1638.)

Volunteers undergo a police record check and 24 hours of classroom training before going into the field with an experienced volunteer or staff member for on-the-job training.

Classroom topics include crisis intervention procedures, mediation techniques, non-sexual assaults, rapes, suicide, domestic violence and safety precautions.

"The officers won't put us in a situation that will jeopardize us," Buford said. He added, however, that once the officer leaves the scene, "there's always that possibility it will flare up again, but we've never had any problems."

6-Month Commitment

Buford said the qualities he looks for in volunteers are that they be "people-oriented, compassionate, adaptable, able to think on their feet" and that they be "people who can establish rapport and make people feel comfortable."

Volunteers must make a six-month commitment to the program. In addition to committing to working a minimum of two shifts per month, they also must attend monthly meetings where they receive continuing in-house training.

Currently, the volunteers range in age from 21 to 60. Buford is not sure why more women than men volunteer, but, he said, "it's been my experience in victim services that in general we get more women than men."

8:30 p.m. Barbee and Willoughby have bought soft drinks from a vending machine downstairs and are now seated at a large table in a conference room near the CRISIS office.

Although a table-top TV is on, it is largely ignored as as the two continue chatting and recalling the calls they've responded to. Especially difficult to handle emotionally, Barbee noted, are domestic violence calls that involve children.

At 9:30, midway into "Merv Griffin," the phone rings. Barbee goes into the next room to answer it, and Willoughby springs to her feet.

"It's like waiting for a baby," she jokes, reaching for her purse and standing by the conference table as Barbee talks on the phone for several minutes.

Barbee returns to the conference room and sits down. It was a false alarm.

Game Passes Time

"It's my daughter," she explained. "She's just not well."

At 11 p.m., "Miami Vice" has just ended, and Willoughby and Barbee, who have talked about everything from hair lengths to the theory that police officers know the best places to eat, are running out of conversation subjects. Willoughby, who lives nearby, decides to take a break and go home to get her Trivial Pursuit game, which she forgot to bring. She returns shortly, and Johnny Carson is ignored as a round of Trivial Pursuit begins.

12:10 a.m. Still no calls. Barbee, who admits she's not very good at trivia, yawns. Willoughby, demonstrating a virtuoso command of entertainment trivia, appears energized.

At 1:30 a.m., the trivia game is winding down; the late hour is taking its toll. For Barbee and Willoughby, it's been a long day and night.

Importance of Shift Stressed

At 1:55, it's obvious: There will be no calls for the Huntington Beach CRISIS team tonight.

Although Willoughby and Barbee express disappointment that they were unable to demonstrate how the CRISIS team operates on a call, they emphasize that they don't feel that their uneventful shift has been a waste of time.

"If you felt that way," Barbee said, "you wouldn't be here.

"You hope," she added, "that the reason you weren't called is that there wasn't a situation that warranted our being called, as opposed to their (the officers on duty) not being aware of us or choosing not to call. And you have to be realistic and understand there are things that happen every day whether or not the Police Department knows about them."

Willoughby and Barbee head back into the CRISIS office, where Barbee picks up the phone and dials the watch commander.

"This is Debra with the CRISIS team," she says. "We're signing out for the evening . . . ."

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