Advocates who work on behalf of abuse victims sometimes can feel overwhelmed, not only by the importance of their work but by the amount of information they need to provide adequate help.
Since 2018, Dr. Christina Policastro, associate professor in criminal justice at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has partnered with the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence to provide weeklong seminars to provide that information to advocates.
The Senator Tommy Burks Victim Assistance Academy addresses ways to help prevent abuse, recognize it when it happens and find resources available for victims and advocates.
“It’s about the prevalence and key factors that influence victims’ experiences so service providers and advocates have a base level of knowledge that they might not have when they first come into their jobs,” said Policastro, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees—both in criminal justice—from UTC.
The 2023 seminar will take place from June 4-9.
The late Tommy Burks was a fierce proponent of raising awareness and providing help and information for addressing all forms of abuse. He was assassinated in 1998 by Bryon Looper, who was challenging him in a race for the 15th state district, where Burks had served since 1978.
Policastro said the academy named after Burks discusses abuse of all types, including domestic, sexual, child and elderly.
Among the seminars at the 2022 academy were “The Role of the Advocate,” “Sexual Assault Overview,” “Crimes Against Vulnerable Populations,” and “In Her Shoes: Living with Domestic Violence.”
Annual grants from the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence pay for the Victim Assistance Academy. With a gap in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Policastro has been awarded grants between $37,000 and $44,500 each year since 2018. For the academy in 2022, she received a grant for $44,524.
The academy attracts between 55 to 60 attendees each year, and the grant money pays for travel, housing, meals and other expenses for those who come to it, she said.
“Agencies usually don’t have those kinds of resources,” Policastro explained, “and we know advocates need the training.”
She said the conference attracts “specially trained” victim advocates and speakers from Tennessee and internationally.
One of the critical outcomes for attendees is making connections with each other so they can share information, she said. That’s especially useful for smaller advocacy centers that can call larger ones to ask for advice.
“If they need help beyond just their agency, they can reach out to those individuals,” Policastro said. “It’s just a really great opportunity to get that extra training knowledge and connection.”