Posts Tagged Columbia

SCLEAP: Providing on-call counseling for South Carolina’s law enforcement

By Joseph Crevier

Carolina News

When gunman Sueng-Hui Cho burst into a Virginia Tech classroom building and fatally shot 32 students and professors and wounded 17 others in April 2007, law enforcement officers from all over Southwest Virginia responded to the 911 alarm.

The carnage they witnessed in Norris Hall and a campus dormitory was almost too much to absorb. Within a day, the Rev. Eric Skidmore was traveling from South Carolina to Virginia to help Blacksburg area officers cope with the aftermath of the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history.

Methodist Church

Eric Skidmore and the SCLEAP team are based out of the Heyward Street United Methodist Church located at 2501 Heyward Street in Columbia.

Eric Skidmore

Eric Skidmore, program manager, was recruited in 1997 by SLED to lead the then-new South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program.

Police car

SCLEAP works largely in conjunction with the Columbia Police Department, but also extends throughout the state and to four state departments.


“That chief, she knew that they needed help because this was much bigger than a single internal peer team can take care of, because all their people were involved in it,” Skidmore, program manager for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, said. SCLEAP is modeled on an FBI program aimed at assisting officers who have witnessed traumatic events, from widely publicized incidents to those that don’t get much attention but nevertheless leave an impression on the minds of law enforcement.

Eight years after the Virginia Tech slayings, Skidmore and his staff headed to Charleston the day after nine parishioners were killed at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Roof, who was sentenced to die for the crime earlier this year, had been welcomed into the church’s evening Bible study on June 17, 2015. At the benediction, he pulled out a gun and began firing at the pastor and church members in what he hoped was the launch of a race war.

“It happened of course on a Wednesday night at a Bible study, and Thursday I got a call from an administrator in Charleston County that said we’ve heard about your peer support for police officers, can you come down here and talk with us,” Skidmore said.

Upon its founding in 1997, SCLEAP only served the members of five state agencies and their family members, including the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, South Carolina Department of Public Safety and the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon.

Today, it extends to much of the Southeast and has been involved in assisting officers who have responded to major tragedies and less publicized, but violent, incidents from domestic violence to suicides that weigh heavily on first responders. The agency also helps those who suffer with post-traumatic stress syndrome from their time in war zones, those who have alcohol and drug related issues related to their service in the military or law enforcement and suicides in law enforcement.

The SCLEAP team only responds to tragic events upon request, Skidmore said. He said relationships he has built through training and seminars have led to partnerships as far north as Ohio and as far east as Texas.

It also relies on help from peer support team members, who are law enforcement officials trained to provide counseling. SCLEAP also has a cadre of trained volunteers who are officers, mental health professionals and chaplains.

“We have worked diligently on partnership with other states. So, when Virginia Tech happened, what’s important to know about that in terms of why they called us, (is that) we knew each other and we had trained together,” Skidmore said. “It was the personal relationships between the chief of police in Blacksburg, Virginia, and peer support elements in other states.”

Skidmore, along with SCLEAP staff members Steve Shugart and Ron Kenyon, are all ordained ministers. They offer 24/7 support and counseling to non-sworn and sworn law enforcement officials upon request, many of whom are veterans of the U.S. military.

The three-man staff is required to work 37 hours a week but often works overtime without pay because of the on-call nature of it, Kenyon says.

“When I was in the army we had to go over for tours in Vietnam and we were gone for months at a time, so this isn’t that bad,” Kenyon said.

Shugart and Kenyon specialize in counseling veterans, who often choose to go into law enforcement after the military.

Dr. Jack Ginsberg, a licensed clinical neuropsychologist at the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, said signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and stress are more common in veterans because of the nature of their jobs. He uses forms of therapy ranging from simple verbal counseling to more intense types like neurotherapy, which tracks brain waves.

“Almost all returning combat veterans have a period of excessive alcohol use upon return. Three months is the minimum, six months is the typical, some of the time they will straighten out on their own,” Ginsberg says.

Ginsberg said drug use isn’t nearly as prevalent as alcohol abuse, though neither form of self-medication is helpful. In fact, they only make the problem worse, he said.

But that’s exactly what SCLEAP tries to do — minimize stress and prevent extreme cases.

“When they call, they kind of know what they’re gonna get,” Skidmore says.

“They’re gonna get people trained in a particular model, they’re gonna get mostly peer support team members, sworn officers from other agencies, they’re gonna get a mental health professional, they’re gonna get a chaplain and they’re gonna get a program that is tried and true and is sort of a standard of care in the high speed environment of public safety.”

 

Please email Joe Crevier at Joseph.Crevier@yahoo.com with any questions

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All in a day’s work (service dog edition)

Photos and Story by ANNAMARIE KOEHLER-SHEPLEY, Carolina Reporter

Bustling shoppers, flashing lights, and festive music — not to mention Santa’s North Pole set up right in the middle of pedestrian paths—all signal a shopping mall during its peak holiday season.

But two-year-old Shack is cool under pressure. Despite the cheerful chaos, the service-dog-in-training waits patiently for cues to walk, to stay focused, and to not get distracted by all the sights and sounds of Columbiana Centre mall.

Shack, a Golden Retriever Labrador mix, is training for his certification test so that he can officially be released to his future handler. The test, already impressive in length and content, has the added difficulty element of taking place at the mall.

Shack is a 2-year-old Labrador and Golden Retriever mix who is currently in advanced training to officially be released to future handler Dori Tempio.

Shack is a 2-year-old Labrador and Golden Retriever mix who is currently in advanced training to officially be released to future handler Dori Tempio.

“The mall is kind of like New York City,” said Shack’s Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services instructor Maureen Leary. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

At the mall, Shack practices disregarding French fries on the floor of the food court, walking past stuffed-animal displays—his favorite toys—without blinking an eye, and keeping his eyes on his handler, even when the most friendly children walk up ready to shower him with attention.

Shack is in advanced training: He completed his basic training but is now putting in extra hours so that he can be comfortable and prepared to assist his future handler Dori Tempio, whose wheelchair adds a new dimension to Shack’s job. Leary said that Shack is adjusting to walking at the right pace by Tempio’s side.

All dogs and clients go through an in-depth matching process where a committee reviews clients’ needs and dogs’ abilities. But Leary said that Shack and Tempio had a feeling about each other from the very beginning.

“The first time Dori met Shack, he went right to her and kissed her right in the face,” Leary said.

Leary said that dogs are very visual learners and even though they have practiced with wheelchairs in training, Tempio’s chair is a little bit different.

“Some dogs aren’t as comfortable with the chairs,” Leary said. “But Shack had no troubles.”

Their relationship is plain to see as Shack rests his head peacefully on Tempio’s lap.

Dori Tempio is the community outreach and consumer rights coordinator for Able South Carolina, an organization dedicated to providing independent living services to people of all ages with all disabilties. “[He's] wonderful,” Tempio said.

Dori Tempio is the community outreach and consumer rights coordinator for Able South Carolina, an organization dedicated to providing independent living services to people of all ages with all disabilties. “[He’s] wonderful,” Tempio said.

PAALS Board of Directors’ Vice President Sheri Jordan says that it’s easy to tell if a dog is comfortable if you’re familiar with dog behavior. Shack’s relaxed, swinging tail and wide, alert eyes trainers know that he is comfortable and focused on his work.

“We’ll never put a dog in a job that the dog doesn’t like,” Jordan said.

Tempio, community outreach and consumer rights coordinator for Able South Carolina, has had service animals in the past and knows the drill when it comes to the certification test. Tempio’s office walls at Able S.C., an organization dedicated to providing independent living assistance to people of all ages with any disability, are lined with photos of her and her husband and of course, her service dogs through the years.

“I’ve taken the test every year for the last – you don’t even want to know – how many years,” said Tempio. “Still I get nervous. There’s a lot of external factors that can have nothing to do with you that can cause you not to pass.”

Shack, who is a teenager in dog years, is working on focus and tempering his natural enthusiasm before the test.

“Life is very exciting, and Shack loves life,” Leary said. “There’s a lot of things that are very normal things for dogs to do but that he can’t.”

Things like greeting everyone he meets and sniffing out food on the ground are against the rules for service dogs.

Compared to normal dogs, though, the list of things that Shack can do is exhaustive—helping Tempio get dressed in the morning, retrieving lunch from the refrigerator and opening handicap doors are only a few of Shack’s impressive skills.

Opening handicap doors is one of the ways that service-dog-in-training Shack will help future client Dori Tempio. Shack has been trained for over two years and can do everything from turning light switches on and off to helping Tempio get dressed.

Opening handicap doors is one of the ways that service-dog-in-training Shack will help future client Dori Tempio. Shack has been trained for over two years and can do everything from turning light switches on and off to helping Tempio get dressed.

Shack, along with Tempio’s previous service dog Casper, are two of more than 40 dogs that have been specially trained and placed by PAALS. Dogs come from all over the country, and once they get to be about six months old, they begin their extensive training, which lasts about two years.

PAALS rigorous program can be likened to college for service dogs. And just as colleges face routine accreditation, PAALS also goes through a strict accreditation process every five years with Assistance Dogs International, an umbrella organization for service dog training groups. Just as graduates prepare a final thesis before graduation, dogs are certified before finally starting their career.

The PAALS building is even set up as a school, with a main office, a cafeteria and a playground, where the dogs have recess.

But it’s not all treats and playground time for these dogs.

Training includes hundreds of hours of instructional time with trainers and a two-week boot camp with their future handlers, which Jordan calls “exhausting for everyone concerned.” Training also includes things like the PAALS Prison Program, where dogs spend time at the prison during the week and get trained by inmates, and the PAALS Foster Program, where dogs spend the weekend with a volunteer in his or her home.

Labrador and Golden Retrievers are successful service dog breeds because of their energy levels and temperments. “It’s really cool to see the person’s demeanor changing as they see how the dog is going to help them,” said intern Rachael McGahee.

Labrador and Golden Retrievers are successful service dog breeds because of their energy levels and temperments. “It’s really cool to see the person’s demeanor changing as they see how the dog is going to help them,” said intern Rachael McGahee.

 

Rachael McGahee, an intern at PAALS, says that the Foster Program allows the dogs exposure to normal aspects of life that they might not necessarily get at the PAALS Grampian Hills Road location.

“Little things like vacuuming help,” McGahee said. “So that when [the dog] does get placed one day, he’s not like, ‘What in the world is a vacuum?’”

This extensive training doesn’t come cheap: From start to finish, training a dog can cost between $25,000 and $40,000. As an ADI accredited service dog organization, PAALS doesn’t directly charge clients for their dog. Most of the cost is met through fundraising, with clients, excluding veterans and first responders, contributing around $5,000 in tuition for the boot camp training.

McGahee says that spending time with puppies at work is great, but that her favorite part is seeing the direct impact the dogs have on people.

“I met a veteran who had PTSD and he was paired with one of our dogs named Cookie,” McGahee said. “You could tell that his whole life was changing just by seeing how this dog was going to help him. Seeing him work with this dog and seeing it happen was really cool.”

Service dogs help with post-traumatic stress disorder by easing the individual’s fear or anxiety and acting as a buffer between the individual and the world. PAALS also trains dogs to assist individuals with autism or physical disabilities, such as with Tempio, or to work in educational or healthcare facilities. servicedogsg1web_fix

As a component of PTSD, Jordan said that some PAALS clients have experienced traumatic brain injuries, which can make remembering all of the training cues difficult.

“They can be struggling so much and then they get this dog that can help them so much, but it’s a whole new struggle,” Jordan said. “The dogs really help them, though, once they get through that.”

Jordan and Leary both stress the importance of the team effort between the dog and the handler, an aspect Tempio and Shack seem to have figured out.

“I love my Shack,” Tempio said. “[He’s] wonderful.”

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Increase in absentee voting points to potential record Election Day turnout

Patrick Ingraham
Carolina Reporter

COLUMBIA — Lindy Smith cast an in-person absentee ballot last week, relieved to have voted several weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire and Selph say the number of absentee voters is on pace to be up to 15 to 20 percent from the 2012 election, a possible indication of voter turnout on Election Day.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the number of absentee voters is on pace to be up to 15 to 20 percent from the 2012 election, a possible indication of voter turnout on Election Day.

“It puts my mind at ease a little – I’ve done my civic duty,” Smith said as she exited the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office on Friday. “I think not being here on Election Day could be a bit of a blessing, especially in this election.”

South Carolina and five other states allow in-person absentee voting with an excuse and a valid form of ID, which is becoming an ever-popular and convenient way for many to cast their ballots. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia permit early voting without providing a reason for voting early.

“I’ll be out of town for work on election day,” Smith said. “That was probably one of the quickest and easiest times voting for me that I can remember.”

According to the state election commission registered voters can qualify for an absentee ballot if they can “provide a valid reason they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day.” There are a variety of accepted reasons for voting absentee, The most common reason for absentee voting is age related; voters 65 and older can avoid standing in long lines by casting an early ballot.

Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office director Sam Selph said most absentee voters are primarily 65 and older.

Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office director Sam Selph said most absentee voters are primarily 65 and older.

South Carolina Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said absentee voting is up 15 to 20 percent since the 2012 general election. That trend is mirrored in Richland County, said Sam Selph, director of the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections office.

“We are somewhat working with that pace here,” Selph said. “I can’t explain the upward momentum in absentee voting, but I’m happy to see it. What we wanted to do here in this county was make voting readily available to the citizen in a quick and easy way.”

Selph became director of the office after the 2012 election, when some Richland County voters were forced to wait five to seven hours to vote, with hundreds more forced to give up on their chance to vote when the polls closed. There were also issues with votes not being counted and misplaced ballots.

Many attribute the 2012 situation to a lack of voting machines and malfunctioning machines at numerous county precincts. South Carolina law requires one machine for every 250 voters. Former Elections and Voter Registration office director Lillian McBride admitted this protocol was not followed and resigned from her post in January 2013.

Selph says this time around, there should be more than enough voting machines and he expects wait times to be minimal.

Gloria Godfrey is a Richland County poll worker and voted absentee in-person. Godfrey said she was eager to get her voting out of the way.

Gloria Godfrey is a Richland County poll worker and voted absentee in-person. Godfrey said she was eager to get her voting out of the way.

“At my largest precinct…which has over 4,100 registered voters, I’m anticipating at least a 65 to 70 percent turnout so we’ve made sure we have the necessary number of machines at each polling location.” Selph said. “There will be lines, don’t get me wrong, but the wait time should not be long. In 2012 we also had long referendums on the ballot, this time around we don’t have any of that.”

Richland County leads the state in ballots that have been turned in prior to Election Day with 21,931 according to State Election Commission’s absentee voting statistics as of Oct. 21.

Of those nearly 22,000 voters, more than 12,000 have returned their ballot via mail while more than 9,000 have voted in person.

Another possible reason for the increase in absentee voting could be because of the high number of Americans who view the presidential candidates unfavorably and are tired of the constant media attention on the mud-slinging campaigns of both candidates.

According to Real Clear Politics in an aggregated average of 9 different polls, 61 percent of Americans view Donald Trump unfavorably, while 53 percent of Americans view Hillary Clinton unfavorably.

A poll worker brings an additional voting machine into the Hampton Street polling location. State law requires one machine per 250 voters, a protocol that was not followed at all county polling locations in the 2012 election.

A poll worker brings an additional voting machine into the Hampton Street polling location. State law requires one machine per 250 voters, a protocol that was not followed at all county polling locations in the 2012 election.

“I thought about that dynamic early on when we started noticing upward mobility in absentee voting,” Selph said. “I’m thinking that possibly because of that dissatisfaction that they say, ‘well let’s go ahead and vote and get it out of the way!’”

Gloria Godfrey works at the Valhalla precinct that meets at Spring Valley High School as a poll worker and was eager to submit her ballot on Monday morning. Poll workers and managers are excused to vote absentee.

“I’m always happy to get my voting out of the way,” Godfrey said. “I’m ready to get it over with.”

When asked if any new relevant information regarding either of the candidates comes out prior to Election Day, Godfrey said she wouldn’t regret her decision.

“It is what it is, I can’t change anything,” Godfrey said.

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