Treating the unseen wounds

The bruises, broken bones and other physical injuries are most evident in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault, domestic abuse or other kinds of violence.

But after the wounds have been dressed and the body starts healing, the lingering mental and emotional effects of the trauma remain.

“Whether we want to accept it or not, violence and trauma is a healthcare issue. These patients will come into our offices with pain, nightmares, insomnia, depression, anxiety and (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Jenny Lee, a nurse practitioner at Johnson Memorial Health. “Without being addressed from the root causes, we’re just feeding them medications or such without getting to the root causes.”

To treat the wide-ranging impact of sexual, domestic and other physical violence, a team of social workers, victim advocates and medical professionals have united to help victims. ASSIST is a recently created support team housed at Johnson Memorial Health that works with victims of violence, as well as their families and loved ones, to help them heal physically and mentally from their experience.

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All of the counseling, victim advocacy and other services provided to victims are free and centrally located to make a difficult experience a little bit easier.

“We want everything all in one place for someone who has suffered violence,” said Jill Gonterman, lead social worker for ASSIST. “They have all of these needs, and the agencies to take care of those needs are scattered all over the community. They have to piecemeal everything together that they need, without knowing the system. We put it all together.”

Often, victims are overwhelmed with the enormity of what they’ve experienced and are reluctant to go through the additional steps of prosecution, court orders and long-term counseling.

ASSIST can at least provide a starting point, a place where people can feel safe and find someone to talk to, Gonterman said.

“A lot of times, they don’t have anyone to speak to about what was going on. That can be very isolating. It’s nice for them to be able to come to us and start processing everything,” she said.

ASSIST grew out of a similar service Gonterman and Lee were part of in Marion County. The Center for Hope is a program of Eskenazi Health caring for victims of sexual assault and family violence. Seeing the benefits provided for people who came to the center, both felt that more wraparound services for sexual, domestic and physical violence were needed in the community.

They found that while victims were receiving the immediate care that they needed, the lingering emotional and mental wounds were often left untreated.

“Not just the acute physical needs of a victim, but then the follow-up care as well. So we created a program that encapsulated it all,” Lee said.

Johnson Memorial Health was in the midst of a large campaign focusing on mental health. Lee met with hospital officials and discussed the how to bring what would become the ASSIST program to Franklin.

ASSIST started to take shape in 2016, with Lee focused on the medical provider side of care. Gonterman joined the effort in October to handle the mental health aspect of the program, and Ashley Watkins, victim advocate, came on soon after.

The program provides wrap-around care for victims of violence. The medical component of treating the wounds stemming from assault is combined with social workers and advocates who can care for them emotionally in the short- and long-term.

The team works with nurses on forensic medical exams to gather evidence about the assault or violent act. If someone comes into the emergency room, a social worker is provided to sit and comfort the victim while their medical needs are treated.

Afterwards, team members provide counseling and crisis intervention, helping victims deal with the fear, anger and other emotions stemming from an assault.

The ASSIST team also ensures that the victim is safe and will not be returning to a situation where they are at risk.

“We want to take away all of the emotional stress that’s happening, and then getting them prepared to take the next steps that they need to do,” Watkins said.

Some clients come to ASSIST through the hospital’s emergency room, referred by medical staff after receiving care for physical injuries. Other people come the program by calling its help line.

Watkins and a forensic nurse would meet with the patient to help them deal with the immediate aftermath of their experience.

Depending on the patient’s situation, Watkins can connect them with domestic violence resources or other services in the community. Counseling sessions allow victims to treat the root causes of their emotional trauma.

“If they’re calling and interested in a counseling session, I’ll do an intake interview with them. I can help them get a protective order, meet them at the courthouse or here at the office, and gauge what kind of resources they need — if we provide them or someone else in the community does,” Watkins said.

For victims who are children, the ASSIST program helps them deal with the trauma while also aiding parents and other family members work through their own emotional trauma.

“A lot of times, the parents need the counseling more than the kids do at that time. For us to be able to offer to secondary victims for free as well has been a great thing,” Watkins said. “Helping them with the process and what to do, to be sitting with them, I like to think it’s more comforting for them.”

As ASSIST has become more established and connected with other community agencies dealing with violence, the program has been working with more and more clients, Gonterman said.

Everyone involved has found that collaboration has been the key aspect of its success. Not only do doctors, nurses and social workers within Johnson Memorial Health work together to provide different types of care for victims, but the outside community organizations and law enforcement have become vital partners, Lee said.

The program is currently funded through a series of grants through the hospital. The hope is that bigger and better services can be provided with additional support from other organizations.

“For some people, the healing process can be really short. And for some people, it can take a really long time, depending on their past history and supports,” Gonterman said. “Since it’s free, they can continue to come as long as they need to.”

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What is it? An effort to provide short- and long-range treatment to any person age 5 and up who has been directly or indirectly affected by sexual, domestic and physical violence.

What does it offer?

  • Individual counseling
  • Support groups
  • Case management and victim advocacy
  • Crisis intervention
  • Assistance filing protective orders
  • Resource coordination and referrals
  • Forensic medical exams

Cost: All services are provided free, and are optional to those who contact ASSIST

Where is it? Currently housed at Johnson Memorial Health, 1125 W. Jefferson St., Franklin

How to get help? Contact the program at (317) 346-2720 or at [email protected]

How to donate: Donations to support ASSIST can be made through the Johnson Memorial Hospital Foundation at