End the nightmare – Guest Column on domestic violence prevention by Jane Schmidt

Editors note: The Help End Abuse Response Team (HEART) program is new program in Vernon County made possible by a $200,000 Rural Violent Crime Initiative grant. It is a collaboration between the Family & Children’s Center’s Domestic Abuse Project, the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department, local law enforcement, and Stonehouse Counseling. You can read about how the program came about in our previous story here.

Nightmares started plaguing me Tuesday night—something I haven’t experienced since I left the Milwaukee area over 24 years ago. When Dane asked me about it, I assured him I was okay, that it was my subconscious dealing with the aftermath of the workshop.

It’s Tuesday morning, and I’m rushing into the conference room at the Vernon County Sheriff’s office. I’m brought up short by a row of blue uniforms stretching across the room like a tight rubber band. Backtracking a few steps, I slip into a chair upfront and exhale.

Jane Schmidt

The free two-day workshop, “Investigating Domestic Violence: Upping Your Game with Current Best Practices,” is being offered to law enforcement personnel and other community collaborators. I’m present as one of 24 HEART (Help End Abuse Response Team) volunteers led by Janice Turben, coordinator of, Vernon County Domestic Abuse Project. HEART volunteers provide support for victims of domestic violence in Vernon County. We’ll take turns being on call, and once a scene is secured, we’ll be there to support the victim.

The HEART project was spearheaded by a grant written by Susan Townsley, clinic director of Stonehouse Counseling. At our orientation meeting, Susan explained that she was seeing the same people again and again in her practice and wanted to end that vicious cycle—particularly because children who are raised with violence tend to become violent themselves.

On average, it takes seven incidents of abuse before someone leaves their abuser. Often the victim stays because they have nowhere else to go, have children and pets they fear for, have been isolated from family and friends, and have come to see the abuse as “normal.” And leaving doesn’t always mean safety.

Sheriff Roy Torgerson welcomes our group and thanks us for our time. He works closely with Janice and Susan to ensure the HEART program will run smoothly.

A recent HEART training session at the Vernon County Sheriff’s Office – Photo provided by Sheriff Roy Torgerson

The Vernon County Sheriff’s Office received 94 domestic violence calls in 2022 and 85 in 2023. But many domestic violence incidents go unreported because victims fear for their lives or are promised by the batterer that it will never happen again.

The agenda is jam-packed. An expert from Milwaukee describes the dynamics of domestic violence: power and control, escalation, cycle, impact on victim, and perspective and behavior.

We break into small groups to work through some case scenarios. My group includes Janice, another HEART volunteer, and four law officers. When the officers decide they can charge the hypothetical suspect with reckless driving, Janice challenges them: How? They confer with each other thoughtfully and include us in the process.

For me, this is the best part. I believe that when our law enforcement is involved with the community, good things will happen. Seeing blue uniforms and guns can trigger a sense of danger and anxiety. But these are good people, learning how to better take care of folks like you and me.

A recent HEART training session at the Vernon County Sheriff’s Office – Photo provided by Sheriff Roy Torgerson

When the first day’s session ends, I sprint for my car. The subject is a tough one, and the presenters have shared real-life scenarios, pictures, and body cam videos to drive home the urgency of the topic.

That night, my bed feels dark and scary. Facts from the workshop spin through my head: the impact of trauma on memory, cognition, and behavior; why victims often recant; the importance of evidence-based investigations; collaborating for the victims’ safety; and offender accountability… Then the nightmares begin. No matter how hard I fight, I can’t get free.

Wednesday morning, I head back to the sheriff’s office for the conclusion of the workshop. I’m grateful to be learning from experienced women in this field, but also tired. This time, I don’t startle at the sea of blue when I walk into the room.

Officer Palmer, of La Farge, shares the terrifying statistics of police suicides. He reminds his team that they don’t need to be alone with the trauma of their jobs and urges them to reach out for help.

Then a survivor shares her story in a nonlinear, disorganized, bits-and-pieces way. We know from our training that this is common for victims. The importance of listening, not interrupting, and not judging or thinking of questions has hit home. The full room is deadly quiet.

A recent HEART training session at the Vernon County Sheriff’s Office – Photo provided by Sheriff Roy Torgerson

This brave soul, at one time a manager at a major company, tells us about her coworker, confidant, and friend strangling her and days later coming back to kill her. She can’t see well out of her left eye even after numerous surgeries, and her right hand, which was all but severed, doesn’t have feeling. I notice she doesn’t mention receiving any mental health assistance.

The rest of the workshop covers legal risk factors for victims, stalking, more case scenarios, report writing, and recognizing and documenting signs of strangulation, which precedes 53% of domestic violence homicides.

The workshop ends with questions and many thanks to the presenters and the county for offering this opportunity. Driving home, I keep thinking how lucky we are to have this level of commitment to the people of our community.

Thursday morning, Janice emailed the volunteers from HEART a heartfelt thank you and an offer for debriefing. When I go out on a call, I’ll feel reassured that the officers and I will be working as allies.

My nightmares are temporary. Hopefully, by being more aware, we can end the living nightmare for domestic abuse victims and their families.

For more information about the HEART program, contact Janice Turben ( For more information about programs for victims and batterers, contact Susan Townsley at

Jane Schmidt lives in Vernon County, owns and operates Fitness Choices from her home in rural Viola, Wisconsin. The focus of her work is to help women overcome obstacles to maintain healthy habits for life. Her award-winning column, “Jane’s World,” appears weekly in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout newspaper. Jane’s books include two essay collections, Not a Perfect Fit and Thunderstorms & Tiny Turtles, as well as a series of books for children written in collaboration with her rat terrier mix, Finnegan. You can read more of her work on her blog here.

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