Q&A with Debi Cardwell, Spirit River Victims Services Program Coordinator

Spirit River Victims Services Program Coordinator Debi Cardwell

A branch of the Grande Prairie & District Victims Services, the Spirit River Victims Services – serving the entire Central Peace region – is a group of volunteer advocates who assist the RCMP with taking care of victims of crimes, people who have experienced a sudden loss of life or people who have been through an accident or disaster. This often also includes children.

We sat down with Program Coordinator Debi Cardwell at her office, located within the Spirit River RCMP Detachment, to get a better understanding of how Victims Services helps residents of Central Peace.

Q: How long have you been with Victims Services?
A: I’ve been with them since the fall of 2013 out of the Slave Lake office. That is where I received my advocacy. Then I moved to Spirit River in May of 2014 and was an advocate for about nine months before the Coordinator position came open. I’ve been in that role ever since, which is a 20-hour a month paid position with the rest of the hours spent in volunteer capacity.

What drew you to this occupation?
It’s something I’ve always been interested in. But what really got me was a very dear friend of mine lost her grandson in a tragic accident. I went and stayed with her for 12 days. Just being there for her steered me to look into it more. Then a lady who I worked with in Slave Lake said, “Come on, Debi, you have to try.” So I did, and I just love it. All the advocates have seen some horrible things, but you wouldn’t trade the other side of it – the fulfilling side. We’re all caregivers, and we have a strong team of advocates in Spirit River. They are amazing.

How does Victims Services serve the Central Peace?
We are not counselors. However, we do give comfort, taking care of the person’s initial physical needs and staying with them until a family member comes for them or they feel up to leaving on their own. For sudden deaths, we go to the home or hospital and just basically stay until family gets there to support.

We also go with the RCMP to do notifications of sudden death. Along with being there as emotional support, we also refer people to the appropriate services needed for whatever the circumstances may be. We have packages that explain what the process is as far as what happens next and connect them with the right people.

For example, we have a court liaison in Grande Prairie who will take them when they must go to court. The liaison walks them through the process, gives them a tour of the court, as well as stays with them during the trial or court appearance. For domestic violence, we have a unit located within the Grande Prairie office. So, when we have a domestic violence that happens here, we make the initial contact and then we refer them to Grande Prairie. So, everything is basically done on referrals.

What we’ve also started doing is go out with Central Peace Fire & Rescue when they call on us. Our work with them is basically just sitting with the person. The firefighters need to focus on the fire, or whatever the situation may be, and so they don’t have time to watch the resident(s) involved.
So, they call us, and we go out there to keep them away from the scene and make sure they have what they need – for example, a warm place to sit, something to drink and answer questions. Our job doesn’t stop after the person has left, though. We keep in touch if there’s a trial by keeping them informed of trial dates and such. Also, sometimes people turn down our services initially and then after time has passed they realize they’re not able to cope with what happened and needed assistance with what to do next. We also have files where the RCMP has been proactive. The person hasn’t requested Victims Services, but a phone call from us might really help.

How is Victims Services funded?
We are funded by the RCMP and by donations received from the municipalities that we serve, so the G5. However, since we are attached to Grande Prairie, the donations go there and then are dispersed accordingly. That’s what pays our wages, training, supplies and handouts. We also give volunteer appreciation gifts each year.

What challenges do you face?
Our biggest challenge right now is that we do not have enough advocates to cover the whole of our jurisdiction, which is so big.  To become an advocate requires 70 hours of online training, courses and then an intense police screening that includes security that all takes about 3-4 months. It takes a serious commitment. You can’t just show up and say you want to be an advocate and, boom, you are. Also, we work on 1-week on-call rotations, but sometimes you get called in when you’re not on-call.

Our biggest problem up here is that it is so diverse. I’m the only advocate in Spirit River and to the east past Wanham. Then we have one around the Saddle Hills County office, one in Silver Valley and one in Savanna, so we’re pretty spread out. There is a lot of ground to cover from the BC border to west of the 6th meridian, north to the Peace River and then Saddle Hills’ south border.

Without breaching confidentiality, what have been some of your most rewarding moments?
Helping the kids, but truth is that it’s all rewarding. It’s a dark business, but someone saying, “Can I give you a hug?” when they’ve been crying is a good feeling knowing you’ve helped them feel safer. Also, the friendships and relationships that you develop. I’ve had people I’ll see on the street or in businesses that I have helped, they stop me to say “hi” and they give you a little update on what’s been happening in their lives. You know they’re doing better, they’re doing okay. Those, to me, are the most rewarding things.