Several dozen Minnesotans working to ease the way for crime victims are getting an important timeout this week.
About 36 "students" are attending the Minnesota Victim Assistance Academy at St. Cloud State University, which runs through Friday. Most participants are less than three years into high-burnout careers, including police and probation officers, social workers and nurses, and advocates for abused women and children.
While the weeklong academy is billed as academic -- class is held daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- it's therapeutic, too. Participants, many of whom regularly face the dark side of human nature, are catching their breath, connecting with potential mentors and, most important, thinking creatively about the best practices for helping crime victims and their families regain control and move forward.
"The last thing we want to do is cause further harm" when working with crime victims, said academy director Alicia Nichols. "These are people's lives we're dealing with."
The curriculum, taught by veterans in criminal justice and victims' rights, includes stalking and human trafficking, crimes against children, tribal law and restorative justice. They talk about ethics, too.
About half of the attendees work in outstate Minnesota, where, Nichols said, "everyone knows one another," and the person seeking safety at your domestic abuse shelter could be your neighbor or friend.
The academy, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Safety, has run for six years, educating more than 250 professionals, Nichols said. The $175 fee per person includes all training materials, meals and lodging, with federal dollars covering some of the cost.
"We understand how important training is, which is the reason we keep the cost low," Nichols said.
One of the academy's success stories is Alison Feigh. Feigh, 33, was confident at age 5 that she was going to be an actor or "an orphanage lady. I was obsessed with 'Annie,'" said Feigh, who grew up in St. Cloud. Everything changed in sixth grade when her classmate, Jacob Wetterling, was abducted.
During her freshman year at St. Olaf College, Feigh asked Patty Wetterling, Jacob's mother, for advice about a self-designed major she was considering. "Missing children, is there a career in that?" she asked Wetterling.
"The vibe I got was that it would be really nice to work yourself out of a career in that."
She dove in. After working for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Feigh joined the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center in 2001. She left to complete her master's degree in criminal justice at St. Cloud State University in 2009, then returned to JWRC in September.
In 2008, an anonymous donor provided a scholarship in Jacob's name for Feigh to attend the Victim Assistance Academy. "To attend in Jacob's name," she said, "was very full circle."
Webinars and workshops serve a purpose, she said, but having a place "where all these experts come to you, allowing you to process every day," is invaluable, she said. "There's a strong sense among us of wanting to do the right thing, but what is the right thing?"
Real-life exercises stuck with her, too. In one, she role-played an abused mother with only $20. "Would I use it for a taxi to get to a shelter, or for food for the kids?"
She's taken her skills gained at the academy into the broader community, speaking to health professionals, police officers, PTA groups, GLBT students, Girl Scouts, sobriety groups and more. She works with the media, too, to make sure our reporting "doesn't re-victimize the victim or the victim's family."
Perpetrators also get her ear. "So much of it is after the fact, but we also ask, 'How do we reach perpetrators the next time, before this happens?'"
Feigh's St. Paul office features a bulletin board with photos of smiling children. She keeps a laminated card from the academy in her desk and pulls it out regularly. It reminds her to be guided in her work by integrity, professional responsibility and respect for other people's rights and dignity.
It reminds her, too, to take care of herself by consulting peers and supervisors so she doesn't feel alone in a profession that's equal parts hope and heartache.
"People who are attracted to this work wear their hearts on their sleeves," she said. "Your arms get tired."
Years after the academy, she's still leaning on people she met there. "I can still say that these are the people I use as sounding boards and for emotional support."
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