The 'amazing, unsung work' of Arlington's victim services unit

ARLINGTON -- For 23 years, she lived in fear of her abusive husband, her dreams of breaking free dimmed by the fact that women's shelters couldn't welcome her severely disabled son.

Julia, who is not being identified by her real name, said she called Arlington police three times between 1999 and 2011. When an officer arrived, her husband acted calm and denied threatening her. She bore no visible injuries. With nothing else to go on, officers had no grounds to arrest him.

As time passed, Julia questioned whether she would ever find a way out. Then, by chance, she learned about the Police Department's victim services unit -- the largest of its kind in North Texas.

On a Sunday afternoon in October, she dialed the number. On the other end of the line sat crisis counselor Sarah Hickey, ready to help mother and son escape to a new life.

"She asked if I wanted to press charges," Julia said in an interview at police headquarters. "I'm thinking, 'I would have loved to have pressed charges about 100 times.'"

Police departments are required to provide a victim assistance liaison to "ensure that a victim, guardian of a victim, or close relative of a deceased victim is afforded the rights granted" by state law.

The Arlington unit goes far beyond that, consoling and advising people traumatized by everything from headline-grabbing murders to garage break-ins. With 10 paid staffers, eight college interns -- several from the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work -- and three regular volunteers, it dwarfs its counterparts in Dallas and Fort Worth.

The team, which aided 13,043 people last year, "does amazing, unsung work," police spokeswoman Tiara Richard said. "It's a very, very tough job, but they are good at it."

In 1992, Gov. Ann Richards' office named the unit the best in Texas, and it was honored in 2009 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Its coordinator is Derrelynn Perryman, a licensed social worker who has been with the unit for 17 years. She views her team as a necessity, not an afterthought, for the Police Department: "I think [the public] should expect nothing less than what we do."

Quiet days, chaotic days

When staff members report for duty, they never know what their shift might bring. In one memorable case, children watched their father beat their mother with a Christmas tree.

Some days, they might not be called out at all, so they spend their time in the office following up on cases.

Other times, like the rainy afternoon of Dec. 14, all hell breaks loose.

In north Arlington that day, police say, a man in an SUV fleeing the scene of a crash smashed into the back of a pickup, killing its driver, and fatally shot a bystander who ran to help.

As dozens of police officers sorted out the chaos, victim services counselors accompanied the suspect's twin toddlers to the hospital, consoled the pickup driver's girlfriend and helped the suspect's wife, since her children were involved.

Some cases -- like the kidnapping and slaying of Amber Hagerman in January 1996 -- have turned into a decades-long relationship in which the counselor becomes like a family member. Perryman recalls getting permission to let Hagerman's mother peek inside the investigation room where about a dozen detectives were sorting through thousands of tips.

That simple act of reassurance "changed everything," Perryman said.

Besides crisis intervention, the unit helps victims or survivors file for state compensation, provides case updates and offers transportation to a shelter or to court. Its specialists connect families of murder victims to funeral homes and arrange for crime scene cleanup.

Such details are usually the last thing on the mind of a loved one in shock, Perryman said, but the grieving can't begin until they are addressed.

"A lot of what we do is problem-solve, problem-solve, problem-solve, jump through hoops," Hickey said.

Other cities' units

The Fort Worth Police Department's victim services unit usually has a staff of seven but is at five now, said Jennifer Osteen, its human services coordinator. Two members, including coordinator Michelle Morgan, recently left to help launch One Safe Place, a coalition led by the Safe City Commission to serve victims of sexual abuse and family violence.

Last year, the unit handled almost 14,000 reports involving violent crime. But staffers try to give help to anybody who seeks it.

"We certainly get calls from people who are not necessarily victims of crime but have some need, and we never turn people away," Osteen said.

The Dallas Police Department's unit, which handles about 600 cases a year, has one part-time and two full-time staffers, two volunteers and "one or two interns every other year," program director Pat Keaton said.

In Arlington, a recent domestic assault near the entertainment district showed how the unit works. When police responded, they determined that the victim, a mother of four who had a cut inside her bottom lip, needed to speak with a counselor. Hickey took the call and drove to the family's home.

The suspect "caused a big disturbance, saying, 'I'm going to kill you! I'm going to kill you!'" the woman said in Spanish, which the responding officer translated. "He struck her twice."

As Hickey interviewed the woman, her 14-year-old son listened while the three younger children watched TV.

"Are you OK with staying here with your children tonight?" Hickey asked. Yes, the victim replied, but she'll call the police again if needed.

"Please do. Please do," Hickey said. "I want you to know that there's a safe haven that you and your children can go to."

The value to police

The unit has a budget of $626,826.72, of which $179,404 comes from grants. For police, the payback comes when the unit's softer touch helps break a cycle of crime or builds good will with witnesses, further motivating them to cooperate. Research shows that easing trauma can help victims recall the incident better, Hickey said.

Detective Dara DeWall, who was hired in 1996 as a crisis counselor, knows the value of all that.

"Witnesses are evidence," she said. "If you can't get them to help, you don't have a case."

Crisis counselor Laurie Lawson, a longtime member of the unit, reflected on the most memorable part of the job.

"What I've learned is that people can do unspeakable things to someone else in the name of love and people can endure unspeakable things in the name of love," she said. "And the story is almost never exactly what one person says it is."

Above all, she said, is the reward of helping people rebuild shattered lives.

"You're the soft touch. You're the hug. You're the person who brings the hot meal. You're the one who sits with them when they call their family members," Lawson said. "It's a privilege to work with people like that."

That includes people like Julia, who made the call to Hickey in October.

In the terrifying hours that followed, Hickey told Julia what documents to grab. She helped make sure that the medical equipment Julia's son needs was retrieved from their home. She walked Julia through getting a protective order, even taking her to the hearing.

Now Julia has a part-time job and hopes to enroll in nursing school. Gone is the dread of going home after work "because you know you're going to get the crap beat out of you."

She mustered the courage to make her move, and now Hickey's words stay with her. "She promised me that I would be safe," Julia said. "And I have been."

Online: Arlington victim services,

Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1