ON THE FRONTLINES: Meet Ruth Schulder—Safe Horizon’s Emergency Hotline Team Member

In October, I was contacted by Stephanie Coggin from Safe Horizon—a New York City-based victim services agency offering shelter, counseling, and legal assistance through 57 program locations–about profiling two emergency hotline team members chosen as heroes for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. These two heroes, Nancy Dorsinsville and Ruth Schulder, have over 50 years of experience collectively in public health and welfare, and are deeply impacted by the survivors (and their stories) they speak with and counsel on a daily basis.

So I jumped on the chance to interview these two women for my website*. Through email, I asked Dorsinsville and Schulder the same set of questions about their role with Safe Horizon’s emergency hotline, and what drew them to this work. In this post, you’ll meet Schulder, a 66-year-old native New Yorker who spent over 20 years working with child welfare services and previously batterers support group leader. In her work with Safe Horizon, Schulder serves as a hotline team leader with “a no-nonsense approach”, training other staffers on how to manage incoming calls, as well as an advocate for technological advances made by the agency—including live call monitoring for support during difficult calls, a real-time look at shelter availability in the city, and training calls that take place three times a week. Below you’ll find an unedited transcript of my questions and Schulder’s answers, which were facilitated through a media relations rep with Safe Horizon.

(*The interview questions were original sent mid-October, but due to schedules and other factors, Dorsinsville and Schulder were unable to respond until mid-November)

Annamarya Scaccia: How did you become involved in Safe Horizon?

Ruth Schulder: I retired from Preventive services (funded by NYC Children Services) where I was a Program Director with Salvation Army for 8 years and with Seaman Society as a Supervisor and Social worker for 12 years. I decided to return to work, but was interested in something with less responsibly. Since my passion has been working with families impacted by domestic violence, I immediately decided to look into job opportunities with Safe Horizon. Over the years, I had made numerous referrals to Safe Horizon even when they were known as Victim Services, prior to the agency changing to Safe Horizon.

Why did you want to become an emergency hotline team member?

I had previous experience years ago after college, working on a crisis team and part of our responsibility was to answer a suicide hotline. At that time, the calls went through the hospital and were transferred to my home number where I would provide support to the caller regarding their suicidal ideations. At that time, there was limited technology and I remember feeling alone while on such calls. When I researched how the hotline worked, I realized that there were great technical strides and as management I would have the opportunity to use my expertise in the field to assist advocates by providing support and guidance while they were on the call using our call distribution center and the Instant Message Feature.

What is your social justice/professional background?

I graduated with a bachelors in sociology and a master in social work. I worked 20 years for OMRDD and retired. I started as a teacher for special education, then became a client placement specialist and my last position with NYS was as an auditor for ICF group homes.  After retiring from the state, I entered the field of children services, first as a social worker with Seaman Society working with 15 families with a parent that had substance abuse issues to prevent providing case management and substance abuse treatment services. I then accepted a position with Salvation Army as a Director for Preventive Services. Our preventive program also provided support to families with a parent that abused substances. Both myself and my executive director completed a year training with Urban Justice Center and Children services- a collaborative effort to address domestic violence issues and the impact domestic violence has on families and especially on children.  In that year I completed extensive training on how to work with domestic violence survivors, children that witness dv and with the aggressor.  During this training, I became passionate around the work within the field of domestic violence. In my position as director of a preventive program funded by children services, I facilitated groups for survivors, including groups for children. Our program became known for our work with domestic violence so most of our referrals from NYC Children Services were of families that had reported incidents of domestic violence. While in that position, I worked closely with some programs within SH. We often referred families to shelters via the hotline. I gained such respect at that time for the work that was being done by Safe Horizon. I also remember working with Victim Services before they became Safe Horizon. We had families that received services from the CAC on SI the year the program opened.  My passion and interest with how domestic violence impacts the entire family steadily increased. I co-facilitated Accountability groups in Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx for the past 15 years.  In the past, I participated in the task force for Accountability programs in NYC through the Mayor’s office to combat domestic violence. In addition, there was a an article in the Sunday NY Times Magazine on 11/17/2002 called Fierce Entanglements  Section that discussed my batterers program called Father’s Against Violence and the work that was being done with families that chose to stay together.  I retired from my position as director of Preventive services with Salvation Army in 2010 when they chose to close down all their programs connected to NYC Children Services; although I continued to facilitate the accountability program in the Bronx. At that time, I decided to apply for the position of Team Leader at the hotline, as I saw this as an opportunity to use my expertise in the field of Domestic violence to support the advocates working at the hotline

Tell me about a call that has changed or had an impact on your life or way you view the world.

I do not take calls myself, but many calls I have listened to impact my view of the world. In general, it became very clear to me very quickly that there are not enough dv shelters in NYC  to meet the needs of the many callers that are in need a safe, undisclosed location.   I immediately began to realize that the hotline was so important as a venue for a survivor to tell their story without fear of judgment.  It can be frustrating to hear someone is ready to leave the abuse and not be able to find a safe haven for that individual. However, it became clear that the hotline supports the caller in so many other ways. The advocates assist the caller in safety planning until they are able to secure a safe place to live.  My first month at the hotline, I remember a women who called daily trying to find space for her and her 10 year old son, but was only safe in parts of the Bronx. Finally, after over a month of calling and safety planning, the client secured shelter. That woman was so grateful that she sent a letter to the hotline thanking us for the time and efforts provided by the hotline. Safe Horizon’s shift to Client centered practice supported the philosophy that clients know best what they need to make their life better. We encourage clients’ to express their feelings and provide options; allowing the client to choose the options that meet their individual needs with no judgment made.  The idea of CCP supports the notion from Social work school that we should always meet the client where the client is.  This is how I view the world; never judge anyone as I have not walked in any ones shoes but my own.

How has domestic violence impacted your personal life?

My work has made me aware of situations that exist in society that strongly impact family. I  volunteer for many years  at schools and youth programs to help educate teens that there should be zero tolerance for violence. I feel that we must address this issue with the children and teens to stop the cycle. I continue to work with the batterer because I understand that some survivors choose to stay with the abuser. I believe that this is a learned behavior and with  work and determination and the abuser’s desire to change and with support services in place in some instances, families can reunite. I believe we need to fund programs to help empower women and children. Programs that already exist within Safe Horizon.

As a hotline team leader, what are your responsibilities?

I provide support to advocates while on the phones with survivors of dv, rape and or crimes. I provide weekly supervision to my direct reports and when possible I provide group supervision to my direct reports. I provide trainings to advocates around safety planning, safety assessments, and identifying child welfare cues. We have three hotlines that we answer which include domestic violence, crime victims and rape and sexual assault.  During weekly supervision with my direct reports a topic often discussed is vicarious trauma because answering calls on such difficult hotlines often stirs up feelings that can impact the worker in many ways.

How does technology employed by Safe Horizon help better serve survivors?

The technology at the hotline is the reason I accepted the position. I knew I wanted to share my knowledge with others and the technology allows me to do just that. We have the ability to monitor calls live and thus can provide support while the calls is in progress. Our system allows the worker to IM a Team Leader when they feel they need some support; a caller has escalated and we can provide direction without the need for the advocate to place the client on hold. This is very helpful when we may need to call 911 or if the advocate identifies suicidal cues. I recall working a part time job on a suicide hotline when I finished grad school and at that time the calls came through the hospital and were transferred to our homes. We handled the calls with no support during the call. Our advocates are never alone on the floor. They know they can IM a TL at any time and have someone provide support to them.

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