Heather LaRocca, 30, an East Mt. Airy resident, is the hotline and intake manager for Women Against Abuse who coordinates the service with three other agencies in Philadelphia: Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Lutheran Settlement House and Women in Transition. (Photo by Carole Verona)

by Carole Verona

In a police report published in the July 1, 2013, issue of the Chestnut Hill Local, a woman related that she had been punched several times by a male acquaintance, causing her inner ear to bleed. She had also been hit repeatedly with an umbrella. And although she had been a victim of domestic assault for several years, she was afraid to notify the police.

Renee Norris Jones, another local woman, experienced seven years of domestic violence at a time when few resources existed to help victims escape abuse. She could only become safe from her abuser after traveling halfway across the country, but soon afterwards he followed her and continued to abuse her. With support from shelters, including the Women Against Abuse (WAA) emergency shelter for domestic violence, Renee was finally able to become independent and safe from her assailant.

Sara Jones, who asked that her real name not be used, was a victim of domestic violence who was transformed into a strong mother with the support of WAA’s comprehensive services. Sara had been pregnant and caring for her three-year old son when she entered the Women Against Abuse emergency shelter.

As an immigrant from Africa, Sara did not have family or friends nearby to rely on for support. She received legal aid from Women Against Abuse attorneys and utilized the emergency shelter’s on-site child care services to pursue career training.

Women Against Abuse (WAA), a nonprofit agency, provides comprehensive services for victims just like the three described here. The organization operates the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for women who suffer from abuse, whether it is physical, psychological, emotional, sexual or financial. Women who call the hotline get assistance with crisis intervention, safety planning, resources, referrals to other community services and intake to the WAA emergency shelter.

WAA is the leading domestic violence service provider and advocate in Pennsylvania, serving more than 13,900 individuals each year through emergency residential services, supportive transitional and permanent housing, legal aid, trauma-informed behavioral health care and community education and training.

The citywide hotline (1-866-723-3014) is managed by Heather LaRocca, 30, an East Mt. Airy resident, who coordinates the service with three other agencies in Philadelphia: Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Lutheran Settlement House and Women in Transition.

LaRocca received a B.A. in social work from Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, PA, in 2005 and a master’s degree in social work from Widener University in 2010. She joined WAA as a children’s case manager in 2008, working on issues relating to women and children and the trauma they experience. Five years later, she was promoted to overnight and weekend supervisor, then to her current position as WAA’s hotline and intake manager.

“The intake process includes screening and figuring out who’s in the most danger and in the most need of shelter. Obviously, it’s never an easy task,” she said. WAA recently embarked on a collaborative project with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing (OSH). “We’ve seen that a lot of women become homeless due to domestic violence and safety issues. So we now have a domestic violence specialist, who is also an intake worker, located at the OSH.”

LaRocca explained that the domestic violence specialist helps with safety planning and crisis counseling and can bring the victim to the shelter, if necessary. “It’s another way for us to reach out and screen among the homeless population,” she said. WAA operates a 100-bed shelter for women and children who are the victims of domestic abuse. For safety reasons, the location of the shelter cannot be revealed.

At a press conference on May 13, the organization announced that it had received a grant to open a second emergency safe haven with 100 beds for survivors of domestic violence in Philadelphia. The new facility, which is scheduled to open by the end of 2013, was made possible by the support of Philadelphia City Council and a $2.5 million grant from the Office of Supportive Housing.

The creation of the new facility is in response to the dramatic number of individuals that WAA has been forced to turn away from its existing shelter due to being at full capacity. “Last year we had to say ‘no’ 8,465 times,” said Jeannine L. Lisitski, executive director, in a WAA press release.

LaRocca defines domestic violence as a cycle of power and control. “It happens across all socio-economic levels, all races, all ethnicities. Sometimes it’s more hidden in higher socio-economic areas because there are more resources available; there’s a greater support system; or there’s money available to be able to get out of the situation. It’s more difficult if you’re poor and don’t have the economic resources to be able to move out and get another apartment.”

What would she say to a woman who is afraid or hesitant to call the hotline? “The hotline is completely confidential and private. The information is not shared with anyone,” she stressed. “They don’t need to have a pre-rehearsed idea of what to say. It’s a place to call to get whatever support they need or answers to any questions they may have. WAA counselors understand there are stages of change and of understanding. Someone might call and be at the place where she can say ‘I’m leaving.’ Others may be at the stage of contemplation, where they’re deciding what’s going on.”

The person on the other end of the line is skilled and trained. The agency staff who work on the hotline must complete 45 hours of training. They also spend at least two shifts shadowing a more experienced hotline counselor.

Education is a key component of stopping the cycle of domestic violence. Through its STARs program (Students Talking About Relationships), WAA counselors go into middle schools and high schools to present programs that range from one to two hours to a full semester. The counselors talk to the kids about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationship and the risks, characteristics and dynamics of abusive relationships.

“One of the biggest test cases is what kids think about the relationship between singers Rihanna and Chris Brown,” LaRocca said. She noted that many kids end up sympathizing with Brown in a blame-the-victim mentality. In 2009, Brown was charged with assault and making criminal threats against Rihanna. He pled guilty to felony assault and received five years probation.

“This is really difficult work,” LaRocca admitted. “We have a lot of passionate staff members here who do a really good job of working with clients who are traumatized. Sometimes traumatized people are difficult to work with, depending on where they’re at in their journey. Most women say the psychological piece is so difficult and damaging. Mind games, stalking, making you feel like you’re the one who is crazy and that you’re imagining it. So it’s exciting when you’re able to see a woman take one step toward safety and a new life with her kids.”

For more information, visit www.womenagainstabuse.org or call 215-386-1280.