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Northampton Police launch new civilian advocate program to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jessie Aquino is an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims working through the Northampton Police Department.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Jessie Aquino is an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims working through the Northampton Police Department.

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jessie Aquino is an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims working through the Northampton Police Department.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Jessie Aquino is an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims working through the Northampton Police Department.

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jessie Aquino is an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims working through the Northampton Police Department.
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jessie Aquino is an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims working through the Northampton Police Department.

But in her role as the Northampton Police Department’s first civilian advocate, the 37-year-old Hadley resident is reaching out to offer help as early as possible.

During the three days a week she is at the city police station, Aquino reviews police reports and makes calls to people who may need confidential support after reporting incidents of rape or abuse. She is also available to help victims who have not reported a crime.

“That was something new for me, making those calls,” Aquino said. “I’ve had people say, ‘I’m at the courthouse right now, can you come down?’ People are excited to have me calling them.”

Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said he has wanted to start a civilian advocate program for some time, but until the city’s new police station was completed earlier this year, the department lacked the necessary space.

“Having a dedicated person there to review gaps and identify those who need different services will be a help,” Sienkiewicz said.

Sgt. Anne McMahon said she hopes Aquino will provide “a more personalized approach” to difficult family violence cases and services tailored more closely to victims’ needs.

Aquino, who started work in Northampton Sept. 9, sees her role as providing “a bridge” between victims of violence and the police and court systems, “to help explain what can seem like the scariness of those systems,” so that more people follow through on filing complaints.

“I’m also there to make sure people have the appropriate referrals,” said Aquino. She said she works closely with local organizations such as Safe Passage to provide counseling, shelter and other services to victims of relationship violence and sexual assault.

Her position is funded by a $300,000 federal Department of Justice grant awarded to the Center for Women and Community at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in partnership with the Amherst and Northampton Police Departments.

Last year, the center logged 1,501 calls on its Rape Crisis Hotline and provided crisis intervention services to 318 local clients, said Associate Director Becky Lockwood.

The aim of the civilian advocate program, which began in Amherst two years ago, is to “help survivors feel less intimidated about filing complaints,” Lockwood said.

She stressed that advocates, after reviewing police reports, are careful about how they reach out, to protect people’s privacy.

“We want survivors to be safe and the police do, too,” Lockwood said.

Amherst police officers say the advocate program has helped the department expand support for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“This fills a missing link of what happens after an arrest and before a case goes to trial,” said Police Capt. Jennifer Gundersen.

Gundersen said the department’s civilian advocate, Ilana Gerjouy, “has opened up our eyes to a lot of things. We become so focused on the crime, where Ilana is able to step in and focus on other issues. She thinks the way an advocate does.”

Aquino, who is bilingual in Spanish, has worked as a prevention educator for the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition in Greenfield and as a counselor for the SAFEPLAN civil court advocacy program for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

After attending Amherst Regional High School, she became interested in the violence prevention field while taking a class in criminal justice at Greenfield Community College. Aquino said she earned a bachelor’s degree from UMass in 2012 and will be starting a master’s degree program in criminal justice at Boston University in January.

“I want to be able to teach new, young police officers about domestic violence and sexual assault,” she said.

The “dynamics” of domestic violence cases are often difficult for police officers, Aquino said, noting that, “I think people get very frustrated about why people don’t leave” their abusers.

The major obstacles cited by people she knows who have experienced relationship violence are money and shelter.

“What I hear is, ‘I can’t get away because I have no money for housing,’” Aquino said. “People also have a misconception about domestic violence shelters. They think it’s like a homeless shelter. We explain that you actually have your own room.”

As a civilian advocate, Aquino said she can help break down barriers and put people at ease about filing complaints or seeking services.

“An undocumented person might think, ‘I can’t go to the police’” after being attacked, she said. “I’m not a police officer. I’m not in uniform. We can talk about referrals and how to behave in court.”

Although police officers are now more educated about domestic violence and sexual assault, Aquino said it can still be hard for victims to navigate complex law enforcement and social services systems.

“If we can support victims in the right way, hopefully they will be able to follow through and get the help they need,” she said.

Aquino, who works at the Northampton Police Department on Mondays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursdays from 4 to 9 p.m., can be reached at 345-1667. More information about the civilian advocate program is available on the city Police Department’s website, www.northamptonpd.com.

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