Laurie MacDonald has been working in victims’ services for 20 years. But until recently, it’s been very much an analog experience.
“For probably the first 15 years, they didn’t even use computers,” she recalls. Even today, the field “really hasn’t been touched by technology.”
In an effort to bring the latest research and innovation to some of the region’s most vulnerable citizens, the nonprofit Center for Victims recently opened a new and expanded headquarters in the South Side and just launched an innovative app to assist victims of violent crime and abuse.
While their most visible work is assisting women dealing with domestic violence, the Center for Victims provides free, confidential services for any and all victims of abuse and violent crime. Starting in 2008, they began to discuss spaces and services that could provide longer-term care and counseling for clients dealing with trauma.
“We always had this vision,” says MacDonald, the Center’s CEO. “We wanted to develop something to really help people heal.”
Working with a grant from the RK Mellon Foundation, the Center partnered with the local maker group Monmade for furnishings and interior design at their new home. That includes a stunning, locally-made wooden boardroom table crafted by Urban Tree that features the city’s three rivers, along with calming artwork. Soon, they’ll unveil a balcony with a zen garden and another with a vegetable patch.
Located at 3433 East Carson Street, the new three-story headquarters houses all the Center’s existing counseling and intervention services as well as a new, interactive exhibit known as the Healing Rivers Project, funded by the Hillman Foundaiton.
Built by local designer Dan Thomson of Visionary Effects, who worked with the late film director George Romero and has created exhibits for Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the Healing Rivers Project allows participants to take a guided tour through a series of displays laying out the ways trauma can affect physical health.
“So many people walk around with unresolved trauma, and unresolved trauma can really ruin your life. It can destroy your health,” says MacDonald.“There’s a lot of evidence now that it’s really a public health issue.”
In addition to offering victims information on ways to recognize and respond to their own trauma, the exhibit will also serve as a teaching tool for social workers and community groups from across the region.
The Center is also planning to roll out Full Circle, a notification service that provides victims of domestic violence and sexual assault with regular updates on the status of their perpetrator within the legal system. The app provides automated updates on when the abuser is in pretrial holding, when they’re in court or in jail and most importantly, if and when they are released.
The organization has been sending similar notifications via telephone for many years via a contract with Allegheny County. But the process proved costly and labor-intensive, though critically important. An even more efficient system was a necessity.
“Research shows that 75 percent of domestic violence homicides happen immediately after jail release,” says MacDonald. “We’ve been doing things so long, we know what works and what doesn’t work.”
The app was designed in collaboration with graduate students from Carnegie Mellon and the software development company Truefit. If it’s successful, MacDonald says she hopes the technology will provide the backbone for further victims services, such as a geolocating service that will provide warnings if a perpetrator violates the terms of a restraining order.
Full Circle and other tech work have put the Center at the forefront of their field, and have drawn interest from technocrats in Harrisburg and beyond.