Vol­un­teer ad­vo­cates com­fort vic­tims at dark­est mo­ments

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Wil­liams

Dur­ing the week, David Moss is a mar­ket­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive at a ma­jor in­sur­ance com­pany; Soneska Rivera works in ac­count­ing.

But for a cou­ple of week­ends each month, they are the first source of com­fort for peo­ple who have un­der­gone a trau­matic event.

Moss and Rivera vol­un­teer their time as vic­tim ad­vo­cates at the Semi­nole County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice, re­spond­ing to sui­cides, homi­cides and over­doses.

The calls range widely, from el­derly peo­ple who died nat­u­rally to chil­dren and tod­dlers who did not.

“My pay is know­ing I made a dif­fer­ence in some­one’s life,” Rivera said.

Rivera, 44, and Moss, 41, each be­came an ad­vo­cate after learn­ing about the pro­gram dur­ing a cit­i­zen’s law en­force­ment academy ses­sion about four years ago.

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After ex­press­ing an in­ter­est, they had to un­dergo a vet­ting process that in­cluded a poly­graph ex­am­i­na­tion and back­ground check be­fore they were al­lowed to shadow one of the de­part­ment’s four paid full-time ad­vo­cates.

“I wanted to force my­self to get deeper and fig­ure out that other side of who we are as peo­ple at our tough­est time,” Moss said. “I felt a call­ing to be able to give back and help peo­ple when­ever they need help.”

After be­ing re­quested by law en­force­ment to the scene of a tragedy, ad­vo­cates have to strad­dle a line be­tween be­ing com­fort­ing and di­rect when de­liv­er­ing news about a loss. They then as­sist the vic­tim in any way they can — whether it’s mak­ing sure they are eat­ing and drink­ing, con­nect­ing them with var­i­ous resources or re­lay­ing in­for­ma­tion from law-en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

“It takes some­body who’s both soft and tough at the same time,” said Saun­dra Bland­ing, the co­or­di­na­tor of the de­part­ment’s vic­tim ser­vices pro­gram. “You have to be pretty savvy at tak­ing care of your­self.”

Sher­iff Den­nis Lemma said he is “ex­tremely proud” of the agency’s vic­tim ad­vo­cates. The num­ber of volunteers fluc­tu­ates; there are cur­rently about four to eight.

“Ev­ery sin­gle day of the year, they are there to pro­vide our res­i­dents as­sis­tance and re­as­sur­ance dur­ing the most dif­fi­cult times of their lives,” Lemma said. “It is a stress­ful, de­mand­ing job. They are he­roes.”

One day in April 2016, Moss re­sponded to Cen­tral Florida Re­gional Hospi­tal, where a woman had been taken after she was run over and stabbed by her hus­band out­side a Chili’s restau­rant.

The woman was al­ready dead by the time Moss ar­rived. Moss said he was stand­ing near her body with a de­tec­tive and an­other deputy when a young hospi­tal se­cu­rity guard ran into the room.

The woman’s hus­band had ap­peared with a gun. The de­tec­tive and deputy con­fronted the man, and gun­fire was ex­changed.

“The sound of gun­shots right next to you is not some­thing you ever for­get,” said Moss, who’s mar­ried with three chil­dren. “If he had got­ten past that door, he would’ve killed me.”

No one was in­jured in the shoot­ing. The man fled to his truck, where his two young chil­dren were sit­ting in the back seat. He killed them both be­fore turn­ing the gun on him­self on In­ter­state 4.

Dur­ing an­other call, Moss went to an apart­ment com­plex where a man was sus­pected of shoot­ing his girl­friend to death in front of her two young chil­dren — a 4-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy. Moss walked into the apart­ment lobby to speak with the chil­dren, who were still un­aware that their mother had died. The son was draw­ing pic­tures of his mom.

“He kept ask­ing me, ‘Is Mommy go­ing to be OK? Is Mommy go­ing to be OK?’ ” Moss said.

Moss said he no­ticed the boy was wear­ing only one shoe. He went back to the scene to look for the miss­ing shoe and saw it ly­ing next to the body.

“I thought, my gosh. He was stand­ing next to his mom when she was killed,” Moss said. “And he ran out of his shoe.”

When Moss told the chil­dren that their mother was gone, the young girl didn’t un­der­stand. The boy was emo­tion­less, only say­ing that he hated his mother’s boyfriend.

Rivera of­ten helps vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault.

The call that res­onates with her in­volved a man who was mo­lest­ing his two step­daugh­ters. Rivera was asked to as­sist the girls’ mother, who was blam­ing her­self and say­ing that her daugh­ters would never for­give her.

“I’m a mother,” Rivera said. “I could feel the pain that she’s go­ing through.”

Rivera sat with the woman and held her hand, con­vinc­ing her that it wasn’t her fault. Ad­vo­cates are dis­cour­aged from pray­ing with vic­tims, lest they not be re­li­gious, but Rivera asked the woman if she would like to pray. She said yes.

“I started be­cause I wanted to make a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s life, but be­ing a [vic­tim ad­vo­cate] had changed my life,” she said. “The way I see life now is dif­fer­ent.”

Rivera said she’s can­did with her two chil­dren when they ask about her work. She knows bet­ter than most that an­other day isn’t guar­an­teed.

“You need to live life ev­ery day and be grate­ful ev­ery day,” Rivera said. “Be­cause one day — you never know.”

SARAH ESPEDIDO/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Soneska Rivera, left, and David Moss are vic­tim ad­vo­cates, serv­ing as the first source of com­fort for vic­tims of a trau­matic event.

Soneska Rivera left, and David Moss vol­un­teer as vic­tim ad­vo­cates with the Semi­nole Sher­iff ’s Of­fice.

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