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Victim advocate uses honesty, compassion

Her job is to help victims and their families through some of the most trying times they may ever face.

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001

Angel Vincent, 28, is a victim resource advocate for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. That means that, among her many duties, Vincent often is the one who notifies family members when a loved one has been killed or injured in Citrus County. She shares this duty with another employee in the Sheriff's Office, Wendi Johnson. Vincent also helps other victims of crime cope with domestic battery, for instance, or the aftermath of a burglary or robbery. She talked to Citrus Times reporter Bill Varian about her job during an interview this week. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What all do you do?

A: Probably my main job is working with victims of crime, to provide them with the resources in the community, to let them know their legal rights, to help them work through the process. We accompany them to court. We work with victims on getting injunctions. We help victims with financial stuff. We help people with employment. And we help put them in contact with other community organizations.

Q: And, of course, many times you're the person who shows up at a person's house when a family member has been killed.

A: We're the only victim advocates in the county who are actually . . . first-responders, who actually go out to a scene and do crisis counseling. We assess the victim's needs. Probably the biggest part as far as assessing the victim's needs is, let's say, for example, it's a domestic situation, and you have a victim who's getting ready to go into shelter. She might forget to take her address book, or her medication. We want to try to focus on what their needs are. Because a lot of times people in those situations forget what to do, how to make arrangements for a funeral. We're kind of their eyes and ears. We kind of step in and, I don't want to use the words take control, but we do.

Q: Is this something you intended to do for a living?

A: Well, I've always worked with people. I love working in the community. I worked with the State Attorney's Office before I came here for three years and kind of had the knowledge of what was out there and available. And this position came open and I really jumped at it. I always wanted to do something in order to help people.

Q: You're the person who is sometimes informing people about something that is going to hurt them terribly. But you're a pretty cheery person. Where do you get your enjoyment?

A: My mom always says, "Gosh, I don't know how you do what you do." People constantly ask me, "How do you do death notifications?" But you know what, it is very fulfilling to me, to be able to help somebody get through a situation and, in the very end, then send me a thank you card. To know that you've helped them through something that they never probably thought when it was told to them that they'd ever get through. Don't get me wrong, it is very hard. When you go into these situations, you wonder how you're going to face it. Things run through your mind when you head out there: What am I going to do? How am I going to deal with this? Especially when it involves children. But you know you have a job to do and you're there to help them and you get focused on the task at hand.

Q: What's the first thing you say to a person who has had a family member die, say, in a car crash?

A: You be very honest with them. First off, you have to make sure that the person you're speaking to is a relative. They know when you show up at their doorstep that something is up. You have a uniformed officer with you. It's almost like ripping a Band-Aid off. You very bluntly say what happened. After their initial shock wears off, then you start answering all their questions. I know that sounds very cold. But you do, because they know. And you want to cut to the chase. You don't want to say, "Well, your mother was driving down Highway 19 and she was going about 60 mph and she ran a red light." You want to say, "She was killed in a car crash." Then all the questions can be answered after that. And they usually do want to know all the details.

Q: Is there a most common reaction?

A: Denial. I think a lot of times people don't believe what's occurred. First and foremost after that they want to call family. And they want to ask questions.

Q: I think we all struggle with what to say to someone who has suffered a tragedy. What do you think a person wants to hear?

A: I think the most important thing in our job is to be a sympathetic ear and provide moral support. A lot of things we do just have to do with listening to people. People will talk your ears off. That's what we're here for. We'll listen to people and comfort them and tell people, "The things you're going through are not uncommon. It's very normal, the anger you're going through for your home getting broken in to." Reassure them. It's not uncommon for someone to be angry, or feel shock or denial.

Q: It's a small enough community, you must knock on a few doors where you know the person. Does that change anything in how you deal with it, personally?

A: Sometimes it can make it a little harder. Sometimes it can make it a little more comforting and you can kind of relate to them and you might perceive how they're going to be. I've been faced with several times dealing with people I've known. It can be tough. I just try to deal with it like anything else. I'm there to do what I need to do.

Q: It's got to be the sort of job you take home with you many nights. How do you keep your sanity?

A: We're on call 24 hours, 7 days a week. One of the things I've found is lack of sleep. As far as being able to go home, I'm not going to say I haven't had a hard time with that. Because there are times I go home and have a hard time going to sleep and wondering if the things I've done are right or wrong or whether this person will be able to get through what they're going through. But I've just been able to really separate those things. Yeah, I go home and I think about my day. But I haven't lived and gone through what those people have. I hope I never do. You know, I love to read. And I have the good support of family.

Q: Your husband is a detective (Dave Vincent). Does that help that you have some shared experience?

A: He really listens to me a lot. It's good for me to be able to go home and talk about the things that happen. You can't keep everything inside, though there are things I don't share with him because they're private and confidential. I just love my quiet time to myself. I think that's how I download everyday. I go to the park for lunch.

Q: Finally, you've got an interesting name given what you do. Do people react to it?

A: Constantly. "Oh, your name's Angel." I'll answer the phone and people will say, "I thought I contacted heaven." I have to tell people, "Call me at the Sheriff's Office, I'm the only one named Angel here." I use that. I also say that my mom had too much Demerol. I've never faced that until this job. It's very wonderful. It's tickling, and humbling, and very nice.

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