Victim Assistance Coordinator Interview: Elizabeth Heidt Kozisek, Grand Island
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Do you have a family? Where did you go to school?
I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. I received my doctorate in Clinical Psychology with specialization in Child Developmental Clinical Psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1996. I completed internship training at the Norfolk Regional Center and post-graduate fellowship at Mary Lanning Memorial Hospital, and was licensed in the state of Nebraska in 1997. I worked for Mary Lanning Hospital from 1996-1998 where I worked with children, youth and families in the outpatient clinic and completed psychological assessments for adults on the inpatient treatment unit. In addition to my role with the Diocese of Grand Island, I worked in private practice from 1998-2017. I currently serve on the Hall County Mental Health Board.
My husband Ken and I have two sons, ages 19 and 22. We live on a farm north of Grand Island, Nebraska where Ken raises corn and cattle. Together we have served as high school religious education teachers/youth ministers at our parish in St. Libory, Nebraska for over 25 years.
How do you explain your job to people?
I am part of the Catholic Church’s efforts to protect and heal children, youth and adults who have been impacted by abuse or exploitation. In my role as a Victim Assistance Coordinator I serve as a point of contact with the Church for individuals reporting an allegation of abuse and I also provide outreach to anyone who has been affected by abuse.
How long have you been a Victim Assistance Coordinator? What drew you to this work?
I have served as the Director of the Diocese of Grand Island Office of Child Protection, since its inception in 2005. Prior to that time, I contracted with the Diocese of Grand Island to provide Safe Environment Training for clergy, school administrators, and diocesan staff; and served as a volunteer Victim Assistance Coordinator. I served on the planning committee for the National Safe Environment Leadership Conference (National Safe Environment Victim Assistance Coordinators Conference) from 2006-2013 and was a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Youth from 2014-2017.
As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I worked with victims of abuse and domestic violence in emergency shelter and residential placements. As a graduate student I worked with a research group examining the long term impact of sexual abuse and other trauma and assisted in research studying the incidence of sexual abuse in homes affected by separation and divorce. In my clinical practice I witnessed the long term impact of abuse. So often the experience of abuse; whether at home, in the community, or in the Church; causes us to doubt our very identity as sons and daughters of God and leads us to doubt His love for us. There is absolutely nothing Catholic about such assaults to our human dignity. I was drawn to this position as an opportunity to work within the Church to restore trust and to restore hope. My work in Child Protection allows me to be on the side of prevention, where I have the opportunity to help children and youth experience right relationships throughout their lifespan. My work in Victim Assistance offers me the privilege of accompanying others in their suffering and offering a source of hope and healing.
Are there any unique challenges to being a VAC in a rural setting?
One of the challenges unique to our rural area is that we are small in numbers, but large geographically. Our diocese serves around 58,000 Catholics scattered across almost 50,000 square miles. We do a lot of traveling in our outreach! Because we are small in numbers, we don’t always have the funds and the manpower to do everything we would like to do. In some areas of our diocese there are real barriers to accessing mental health care and it can be challenging to bring people together for outreach efforts like support groups and retreats.
What personal quality do you think people need to have in order to work as a VAC?
Compassion, understanding, and hopefulness. You have to be willing to enter into someone’s suffering, to really listen and understand their experience, and you have to be grounded in the hope of Christ’s love and mercy. One of the most important things that we do as Victim Assistance Coordinators is communicate this hope, not always through words, but always in our presence and our actions.
Where do you find support for your work, both in and out of the office?
One of the advantages of working for a rural diocese with a small staff is that we have the opportunity to know each other well and to be present to each other, so there is a great deal of support within our office. We have an excellent group of volunteers at our parishes and schools who serve in the role of Safe Environment Coordinator. They are responsible for implementing prevention efforts in their parishes and schools, and a key part of this is recognizing signs of abuse, creating a safe place for individuals to disclose abuse, facilitating the reporting of abuse to legal authorities, and connecting individuals and families with victim assistance. They support our work in so many ways. Personally I have a great deal of support from my family and friends, and my parish community. One of the greatest sources of support is the huge network of Victim Assistance Coordinators and Safe Environment Coordinators from across the country, many of whom I have known for more than 15 years.
What is something that you think people don’t know about the Church’s efforts in this area and you wish they did?
Victim Assistance isn’t just an “office” within the Church, it is a ministry. There are compassionate individuals serving in this ministry across the country who are devoted to accompanying individuals in their suffering and on their journey toward healing. If you are suffering there is always someone available, always someone open to listening, and always someone praying for you.