Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Victims’ Assistance Coordinator helps the abused to come forward, begin healing

Story and photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the Feb. 28, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Roberta Smith is the Spokane Diocese’s new Victims Assistance Coordinator. (IR photo)

Surely one of the most demanding sectors in the field of health care is mental health care. That is precisely where Roberta Smith spent much of her professional life in Spokane.

“I always liked the challenge of working with people who were not as empowered, either because of a mental illness or trauma,” who needed “somebody to be an advocate, help them regain their life – find a purpose and focus again,” said Smith.

Smith began work earlier this month as the diocese’s new Victims Assistance Coordinator, taking the place of Mary Butler, the first individual to hold that position in the Spokane Diocese (“Victims’ assistance coordinator steps down; ‘it’s been a privilege to serve this way,’” IR 1/17/08).

Smith’s dedication to this very intense work is rooted in her relationship with her grandmother, she said.

“I was raised by a grandmother who was paralyzed by polio when she was in her prime, probably in her late 20s, her early 30s. In a wheelchair, she would do everything.” including raising Smith through much of childhood.

“She would say, ‘God gave you a reasonable brain, reasonable health, reasonable looks, and you have an obligation to do more than just take care of yourself.’ That was her philosophy.” As a result, Smith said she has always “cared about people who didn’t have it as good as I have it.”

The idea of working with victims of clergy sexual abuse is certainly “very challenging,” she said. “I felt like I would like to be part of bringing people forward and start healing.”

Much of Smith’s professional background has dealt with victims of trauma of various kinds, in various circumstances, including work with the Spokane Fire Department, the Department of Transportation, and United Behavioral Health, providing debriefings for traumatic events. She has also trained trauma debriefing teams for law enforcement, emergency responders, and for hospitals across the United States.

Although the possibility exists that in her new role, she may have to deal with victims who have suffered recent abuse, many of those whom she will try to help are trying to cope with damage done years, perhaps decades, in their past.

Besides the trauma of the events themselves, she said, victims often are re-traumatized by the legal process, which can “bring up the same feelings” again. “Trauma from the past is never totally gone,” she said; “it just emerges in different ways.”

Her prior work involved helping people deal with trauma more immediately, so that they might not suffer “long-term problems secondary to the trauma.” In the case of victims of sexual abuse, who often begin to deal with the damage much later after the events, “people already have those difficulties.” They need to understand “that’s normal,” and that she is someone “who can listen to them, help advocate for some changes, help them get whatever they need.”

Mary Butler helped bring Smith to this new direction in her life. Like Butler, Smith had retired from long years of service at Sacred Heart Medical Center, including years as director of the Psychiatry Service Line and Nurse Manager of a 23-bed acute psychiatric care unit.

“I worked with Mary for 20-some years,” said Smith. When first approached, “I wasn’t very interested,” since she was just starting to relax into her retirement. After talking with Butler, with Bishop Skylstad, and with Father Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s Vicar General, “I felt I could contribute something. I’d be willing to give it a try.”

During their years of working together, said Butler, Smith was always a woman of sincere compassion, with “great energy and passion for the work at hand. Roberta never limited her accomplishments to that which was required in the job, but had a vision that always reached beyond the scope of her written job description.”

Dealing with the trauma of abuse requires commitment from the entire community, said Smith. “I always believed it does take a village to raise a child. Look at a child who’s been traumatized. The village has to find a way to help that child, whether that child is now an adult or not.”

What are some the common reactions to trauma?

“The first thing is, the emotions just continue to come in waves,” said Smith. A victim might feel capable and positive one day, and the next “they’re overwhelmed again with anger, or grief, or loss,” common reactions whether the events were in the near or distant past.

“People have trouble focusing and getting on with productive parts of their lives,” she said. “They have trust issues.”

Trying to find constructive strategies for dealing with the trauma also is difficult. Often, victims of trauma “don’t know how to talk about it,” she said. “They want to be confident, like everyone else,” but there is often a very real fear that if they speak up about the harm they endured, others will be critical of them.

Part of her work will be helping abuse victims realize “this is part of the process” of healing. She will listen, try to provide guidance, and help them connect with the resources they need.

As someone who has retired from one career already, she sees her age as an advantage to her new work. “I’ve heard almost everything by this point in my life, working in the areas I have. I want to be here for people. Just to listen.”

She also hopes she can assist with developing and honing policies and procedures that will prevent further trauma, “making sure we’re really following our commitment to protection and shielding our children – and not just children, but adults, also.”

(Contact Roberta Smith by e-mail at, or by phone at 353-0442).

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