May 1st, 2014

Program adapts to changing system and challenges

The Victims of Violence (VOV) Program of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts may have won an award for innovation – but it has done so without wavering from its mission of three decades.

VOV, a multi-site adult outpatient trauma clinic that provides a range of services, is marking its thirtieth year and was honored in April with an Innovation Award from the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance.

Founded by psychologist Mary Harvey, Ph.D., and psychiatrist Judith Herman, M.D., VOV offers comprehensive mental health services for crime victims, their families and crime victimized communities. VOV emphasizes clinical care that can facilitate mastery, mobilize resiliency, promote hope and restore self-esteem. VOV clients are 18 and older and may have suffered interpersonal trauma, or trauma through natural disasters or tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings.

“When the program started 30 years ago, we were receiving referrals from people nationally,” says clinical psychologist Barbara Hamm, Psy.D., director of VOV. “It was a different world 30 years ago and there were fewer trauma programs. (Herman and Harvey) founded this program in 1984 and at that time, there were very few systems and services that were really acknowledging traumas had occurred and that there was something you could do about it. It was a radical program.”

While VOV’s mission hasn’t changed, the times have and VOV is adapting to both a changing mental health system and new challenges.

“The greatest change we see in domestic violence is where the offenders are able to harass and stalk people electronically and through cyber stalking,” says Hamm. “The range of ways a person can threaten someone has increased.”

With some offenders, the level of violence and the dangerousness also seems to have increased over the years. “We seem to have more and more of these situations,” she says. VOV is part of a high-risk domestic violence team that services several local cities. “For some, the level of risk is such that it really requires an entire system of care to attend to it,” she says.

VOV also finds itself dealing increasingly with people who have experienced political violence in their home countries and are seeking asylum. “Many of them have really frightening histories,” Hamm says. “They’ve experienced the loss of societies and communities. Their loss is profound and they come here with nothing.”

VOV offers direct clinical services and consultation, victim advocacy, public education, social justice/social action initiatives and community-based collaborations. Services include group and individual. “We really encompass the range of victimization,” Hamm says. “We don’t have a limit for whom we provide services. That’s part of what makes us a unique program.”

VOV provides training for psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists at the advanced graduate school level and has a research program. Hamm has been with VOV since 1986; director since 2006. “I started as somebody in training,” she says. “A majority of our core staff started as trainees and have been here 20-plus years. Despite how difficult this work is, to constantly deal with the underbelly of humanity and knowing what people can do to one another, we have been able to stay together.”

VOV has also reacted to changing models in health care. “Right now, there’s a big emphasis on the medical home model, so we are working with the primary care physicians and staff to be trauma-sensitive as they make their referrals,” Hamm says.

VOV has found innovative ways to help clients develop problem-solving and team-building skills, such as through a rock climbing program, and a gardening group. “We are always trying to have folks discover their own resiliency,” Hamm says. “Trauma tends to isolate them.”

By Pamela Berard

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