Aroostook County has reason to feel hopeful about the work being done by local law enforcement and advocates addressing abuse and violence.

In September, 17 police officers and 14 advocates and social service providers, as well as three batterer intervention program facilitators, participated in a unique training opportunity. The Maine/New Hampshire Victim Assistance Academy Aroostook focused on improving assistance for victims and accountability for perpetrators of violent crimes: domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and homicide.

Sponsored by the Aroostook County Task Force on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the academy was the third collaborative training in as many years offered in Aroostook County to foster an effective coordinated community response to crimes against people.

The week began with two survivors of domestic and sexual violence talking about their experiences.

Ana told of coming to St. John Valley from out of state with her husband, who was from the area. She spoke of his violence, keeping her isolated and trying to convince her that there was no help or hope for her. She suffered weekly beatings. On a night she thought that he would surely kill her, she managed to escape and call the police. They responded to her call for help swiftly, arrested her husband, and helped her connect with Hope and Justice Project advocates.

She stayed in the shelter, obtained a protection from abuse order, moved into transitional housing and, with ongoing help from the police when her husband violated the protection order and from advocates throughout her journey, she is now free, self-employed, and has a supportive partner.

Tracy told of her first experience of sexual assault when she was only 4 years old. The men in her mother’s life were nearly all abusive to Tracy, her sisters and brothers and to her mother. She suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, including the loss of her sister to homicide at the age of 12, when Tracy was a young wife of 16 with her first child.

Tracy’s husband abused her and she struggled to find a way to escape him. It took an elaborate plan, involving the police and advocates to help her and the children get away safely.

Today, Tracy is free, independent, working her way toward a nursing degree. Her children are thriving, the eldest entering college this year. Her experience was painful to hear, but, like Ana, she expressed gratitude to the people who helped her, the police officers and advocates, but also the kind man, her mother’s employer, who gave her family shelter once, and the one member of her family who gave her something to hold onto.

After a particularly gruesome incident Tracy was sent to stay for awhile with her grandmother and her grandmother’s husband, who was blind, yet saw her clearly. One night he gave her a brooch that was old and tarnished. He told her that the brooch was like her. On the outside it showed the affects of mistreatment and neglect. Then he polished it, and it shone bright and silver.

He told her that she was like that brooch: under the surface her spirit was untouched and pure – no one could take that away from her. She kept the brooch as a talisman and never forgot what he said. It helped her be strong and resilient.

Over the course of the five-day academy, participants considered the words from Ana and Tracy, information provided by the faculty and sharing at the participants’ round tables resulted in an extraordinary learning experience. Participants were grateful to have such a training brought to Aroostook County, and said that the experience will change their approach to this work.

Some of the comments were: “I will take more time when speaking to victims,” “I will try to see the bigger picture than just the incident that brought me to the scene” and “Now I know who to call.”

The Victim Assistance Academy is coordinated by the Muskie School for Public Policy and offered annually for victim advocates from Maine and New Hampshire. This is the first time the academy has been offered for a specific community and an audience composed primarily of police officers.

Submitted on behalf of the Aroostook Task Force on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: Francine Garland Stark, executive director, Hope and Justice Project.