Victim Assistance Program helps itself so that it can better help others

Victim Assistance Program Executive Director Leanne Graham is accustomed to dealing with conflict. The organization she heads offers services to help people cope with the trauma associated with events like domestic violence, sexual assault and homicide. However, just two years into her role, she found the first conflict she had to resolve was within the organization.

Graham took over for the organization’s founder and former executive director, the Rev. Robert Denton. A renowned counselor, Denton has worked at the scene of many major U.S. tragedies, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Over the years, Denton became more involved helping other victim service organizations across the country and wasn’t often in the Akron office. He had created the organization’s structure and empowered the staff to make decisions, so the agency was in essence running itself. Ultimately, the absence of supervision worked against the nonprofit.

Running on autopilot

Issues had arisen because of the lack of oversight that created tension among staffers, and resolving that tension was a clear priority for Graham.

“The first thing I really had to focus on was communication internally,” she says.

Individual job functions had become diluted, Graham says, because everyone wanted to help each other out, so some employees would do less of the job they had been assigned and more to help someone else accomplish their job.

“We really needed to define those roles and communicate those roles to that employee and make sure they knew what they were responsible for — we don’t want you crossing over and taking on another responsibility, that’s what that person’s job is,” she says.

The obfuscation led to staff conflicts with one another, which created stressful working relationships in an already stressful environment. So Graham put an emphasis on finding strategies to deal with the interpersonal conflicts and also creating ways to help employees relieve job-related pressure.

Heal thyself

A strong internal support system is a necessity for Victim Assistance, given that the staff deals with difficult and sometimes terrifying events. Staff burnout and “vicarious trauma,” or the adoption of another’s emotional distress, are major impediments for counselors, and can lead to a range of personal and professional problems.

Victim Assistance uses debriefing to help staffers cope. Employees talk about a stressful situation with a supervisor or within a group.

“(It’s) a methodical way to talk about what they’re feeling, what they went through to make sure that they’re actually talking about it, which is a very important thing to do to get the acknowledgement and reassure them that they did a good job, they did the best they could to help this victim,” she says.

In addition, Graham says it’s important to have a light, fun work environment.

“We try to act goofy, and we don’t always want to be business — obviously it’s behind closed doors, the victims aren’t aware — but we send out funny, uplifting emails to each other just to lighten the day,” she says. They also have staff retreats where they can talk about personal things in order to help them focus on more positive thoughts to help employees re-energize.

Happy, healthy, productive

Keeping staff positive has ultimately translated to better performance on the job. Graham says when she started the friction and lack of communication between employees caused delays in staffers getting to crime scenes, which disappointed and frustrated the police they work with.

It also meant supervisors would need to get involved to correct the problem, which added to the tension between employees if there were confusion about who was supposed to do what.

“But now they tend to work it out,” Graham says. “I think they all have an appreciation of how tough this job is. If someone is having a bad day you don’t take it at face value — or if someone says something snippy or sarcastic. They could have just had a suicide call they just hung up on.

“So instead of saying, ‘Hey, you’re acting like you have an attitude,’ they say, ‘Is there something going on? Do you want to talk?’ It’s a very open, caring, sympathetic environment with one another, and there’s little conflict these days.”

The results of Graham’s efforts have made a noticeable difference. “I feel that everyone feels that they own their responsibilities, they take pride because they know that it’s all on them,” she says. “So that’s the piece that they feel proud to contribute to the entire agency as part of their team contribution.”