Comfort provided through new training program

By Carlos Toro

An anti-domestic violence and sexual assault training program is helping Rider students become certified to assist women in need.

In conjunction with Rider’s Alcohol/Drug & Sexual Assault Prevention Education Program, Womanspace is creating a training program for students from March until May.

Womanspace is a Mercer County non-profit organization that provides services to victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Heidi Mueller, Womanspace’s Domestic Violence Victims Response Team Coordinator, is one of the two people running the training program. Mueller, alongside Alison Daks, are training 22 people from Rider and the community on how to support victims of domestic violence and become advocates for Womanspace.

“We bring everybody to us, from authorities, to hospital officials, everybody, just so that trainees can get the full scope on what it is that they will experience,” Mueller said. “People from the Prosecutors Office come in and help out as well as immigration attorneys who come here to talk. We appreciate Rider for having us and this training.”

The training program started in 1998 with the Domestic Violence Response Team and in 2002 the sexual assault response training came to fruition. People in the training program can choose to do either the Domestic Violence Victim Response Team program or the Sexual Assault Support Service program, or even both. Both programs take 40 hours to complete.

Daks, who is the Sexual Assault Support Services Coordinator for Womanspace, said the training regimen involves people from various fields coming in to help orient trainees in the job they will undertake and that the agency works with other organizations as part of the training.

“Heidi and I do the training together, that is how we get to the total of 80 hours,” Daks said. “It is both a domestic violence and sexual assault related training. Heidi and I both facilitate the training. We also have outside speakers who are expert in their particular field. These are folks that we work with from other nonprofit agencies in the Mercer County area. The concept behind that is first, they are more knowledgeable in that particular area than any research we would be able to do. Additionally, it introduces the volunteers to the other agencies that we might refer clients to when we meet with them.”

Susan Stahley, Rider’s substance abuse and sexual assault prevention coordinator, said the program is important to help people who have been suffering from abuse.

“Many victims need/want a non-judgmental, knowledgeable, compassionate person to assist them in the moment they have reported abuse,” she said.

The 80-hour program, held at Rider twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays, trains students in working with local authorities to provide support.

Trainees could be assigned, upon completion of the program, to the Domestic Violence Victim Response Teams and the Sexual Assault Support Services Advocates, both designed for certified volunteers to give counseling, information and emotional support to victims. Volunteers may also be asked to support a survivor through follow-up with medical care and law enforcement proceedings.

The application process to join the training program is an extensive one, according to Mueller. The organization also conducts background checks on everybody who is interested in joining the program. Mueller said it was important to make sure the people have good records as they will be interacting with local police departments.

“The reason we do this is because we’re bringing these people in and working with the authorities and we don’t want criminals,” Mueller said. “That’s not to say you can’t join if you have a speeding ticket or something, but everybody will go through that extensive process.”

Some of the speakers that appear in the program are Assistant Prosecutor Mary Sparkman from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office,  and Detectives Joe Gorski and Alexis Durlacher from the Windsor and Trenton Police Departments, respectively, among others.

A few of the training sessions include knowing what the police protocols are for responding to sexual assaults and domestic violence calls, working with victims of abuse who are disabled, as well as crisis intervention and empowerment counseling.

Stahley said there are several responsibilities that come with assisting victims of abuse, depending on their location.

“At hospitals, the advocates assist victims in understanding of their options as well as support them through the sexual assault exam,” Stahley said. “At police departments, advocates can listen and provide support after a victim has filed a report and in both cases ensure that victims know there are free services/support systems to help them.”

Womanspace was created by Barbara Boggs Sigmund, a former member of the Mercer County, New Jersey Board of Freeholders, in 1977.

According to the company’s website, Womanspace has assisted more than 60,000 women, 11,000 children and nearly 4,000 men who had been victims of violence.

The agency has also “trained and educated over 124,186 professionals and community members on the issue of domestic violence and has responded to over 258,064 hotline telephone calls.” Since its inception, almost 335,000 adults and children have been served by Womanspace.

Mueller said having these programs are essential to better help victims and survivors of domestic violence.

“I think it’s very important to have these kinds of programs,” Mueller said. “When a victim had to go to a police department, there was no advocacy, there was no one to help listen and give support. With these programs now, advocates spend time alone with them and everything is confidential. The victims are more open to talk about their problems and what they need — Food, shelter, support — if there is a qualified, unbiased person who will help them. We have a safehouse for women and children who need help. The community is very supportive of Womanspace. There is a conversation about how to deal with domestic violence and sexual assault in this country which is ongoing. The laws in N.J. are some of the best in the country but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.”

For more information on Womanspace and its programs, visit There is also a crisis hotline that operates 24 hours a day, all seven days of the week, which can be contacted at 609-394-9000. 

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