Mending emotional damage of crime Balto. County police victim services worker helps to ease trauma

June 29, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

When an assailant shoved 82-year-old Mathilda Bisaha to the ground and snatched her handbag, he stole more than the rosary beads, novena cards, photos and $15 it contained. The assault shattered her self-confidence as brutally as the bones in her shoulder.

Four months later, the self-reliant grandmother -- who didn't retire until she was 80, who still cuts the grass and plants flowers at her Essex home -- falters when she remembers the day in February when she was assaulted.

"The damage he did to me, you wouldn't believe," Bisaha says tearfully.

Repairing the tangible damage done to victims such as Bisaha is the job of doctors and police officers. Mending the rest -- the intangible emotional damage that often lasts long past the trial date -- is the job of Deborah L. Mendelson, the Baltimore County Police Department's victim services coordinator for eastern Baltimore County.

"People don't recognize the impact that victimization has. A tiny piece of something has been taken away from you," Mendelson says. "You need something to put the pieces back, or at least put it in perspective so you can go forward."

Mendelson, 46, is the Police Department's only victim services coordinator, although there are plans to fill at least one additional position soon. The job is funded by the state through a grant from the Maryland Victims of Crime Fund.

Capt. Jim Johnson, who heads the Essex precinct, says a victim services coordinator helps soften the way people perceive police officers.

"It enhances our communication with the victims," he says. "Often you'll hear that the officers were stoic. I think [the coordinator's] role helps to soften that stereotypical Joe Friday. The role is a radical departure from a 'just the facts' impersonal investigator."

Roberta Roper, director of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation and a leading advocate of victims' rights in Maryland, said sensitive treatment of crime victims can help police officers as well as victims.

Victim services coordinators like Mendelson keep victims from being shut out of the judicial system that is supposed to help them, she says. They foster cooperation between citizens and law enforcement officers, she says.

"More and more police departments are adding them," Roper says of victim services workers. "It's a more recent occurrence of the last few years. It's not consistent across the state -- Prince George's, Baltimore and a few others are really kind of model programs for the state."

Providing some form of victim assistance is a requirement for national accreditation of police departments, according to Portia Cox, victim services manager for Prince George's County police. Thirteen police departments in Maryland are accredited, she says.

Mendelson began the job in February. She works out of the North Point and Essex precincts, helping victims of robberies, assaults and burglaries, such as Bisaha -- crimes so ordinary that they often don't make the television news or the pages of a newspaper.

Instead, they are recorded in police reports, terse paragraphs of law-enforcement argot devoid of emotion as a matter of policy: Suspect entered house. Forced window (or door) visible at rear of home. Victim pushed from behind, purse snatched.

But it's not so simple for the victim, Mendelson says -- and there are victims aplenty. Last year, the two precincts reported 583 robberies, 1,513 aggravated assaults and 1,814 burglaries.

"It was an eye-opener to me how devastating burglary is to people," she says.

"People are afraid to go in their homes, and they're afraid to leave their homes. Most crime victims are frightened."

Mendelson's workday usually begins late in the afternoon. She reads through the police reports to get victims' names and phone numbers.

"I make an attempt to reach everybody that falls into my categories," Mendelson says. (Victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse are eligible for other kinds of counseling offered by state and county agencies.)

Reaction to her call can range from "I'm fine, don't bother me" to "I can't believe the Police Department has somebody who does this," she says.

"But mostly what I get is, 'thank you,' " she says. "One of the things this position does is let people know what their rights are -- they can attend hearings, trials."

For someone like Bisaha, Mendelson will offer to provide transportation to replace credit cards and identification, to doctor's appointments or to the grocery store.

"She called me and asked what she could do for me," Bisaha says. "I talked to her several times about how I felt and all that. If somebody just listens to me and I can tell them the whole story then I think it isn't so bad. He could have killed me."

Mendelson also will talk to family members of crime victims who are troubled or upset -- in Bisaha's case, her daughter-in-law.

"I think the mere fact that someone picked up the phone, offered suggestions and listened was tremendous," Bernice Bisaha says.

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