Bladen County Sheriff’s Office creates a ‘softer’ space for crime victims

By Ivey Schofield

As an investigator with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, Andrea DiCicco  has interviewed many survivors of violent crimes. 

When she heard about specially designed rooms that foster physical and psychological safety, she knew she wanted to create such a space within the sheriff’s office. 

So DiCicco  applied for and received a $500 grant from the nonprofit group Humanizing the Badge. Families First, a local nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual and domestic violence, donated money, and Cox Warehouse donated and furniture.

Now Bladen County has the first survivor-focused interview room in southeastern North Carolina. 

“The idea was perfect for our county,” DiCicco said. “The room is going to add a sense of security to our victims.”

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Violent crime has been on the rise locally and nationally for several years and increased further during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2019, the violent crime rate in Bladen County was about 252 per 100,000 residents. Two years later, the rate jumped to almost 500 per 100,000 residents – higher than the state’s rate of 430.

To start a criminal investigation, DiCicco said she must interview survivors. She used to take them into the interrogation room, where they would have to sit in the same seat as suspects. Now she can take them into the new “soft interview” room. 

The new “soft” interview room at the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, which features comfortable chairs and a decorative rug, is available for use by law enforcement agencies across southeastern North Carolina.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

The idea for such  rooms came from Project Beloved, a Texas nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual assault. With comfortable chairs and rugs, the rooms can provide a warmer and safer environment than interrogation rooms. 

Feeling physically and psychologically safe is imperative for survivors of violent crimes, said Sarah Ascienzo, former child forensic interviewer and current professor at N.C. State University. 

“We don’t want to retraumatize them through the services and systems that were intended to help,” she said.

Ascienzo recommends law enforcement incorporate trauma-informed practices into their interviews with survivors. These practices include being transparent and trustworthy, giving the survivors a voice, being cognizant of historic treatment and biases, leveling the power differential and offering peer support. 

DiCicco, who earned certification as a victims services coordinator this spring, said she has received some training in trauma-informed interviews. 

Being empathetic and communicating in a soft tone are integral for law enforcement to get the information they need from survivors, said Families First Director Vickie Pait.

Advocates can accompany survivors of sexual and domestic violence to offer support during interviews at the Bladen sheriff’s office.

“Being in a police station is very intimidating,” Pait said. “They’re never going to be comfortable, but they’ll be more comfortable in this room.”

DiCicco said she hopes survivors will feel better about reporting their experiences to law enforcement because of the room, which is available to police departments across the region. 

“The sheriff’s office isn’t all about just getting the perpetrator,” DiCicco said. “We want to be able to support our victims from start to finish. They are an integral part in every investigation that we do.”

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Andrea DiCicco, an investigator with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, secured grant money and donations to create a “soft” interview room.
Photo by Ivey Schofield