Petra Vitoušová: “I’m a demanding perfectionist”

Murders, rapes, abuse. Volunteers at the White Circle of Safety and the DONA hotline for victims of domestic violence deal with those affected by such crimes every day. Director Petra Vitoušová spoke about this work and leading the team of volunteers.

The White Circle of Safety is a civic association that assists victims of crimes. What in particular does your assistance consist of?
We specialize in the issue of domestic violence. For no charge our organization discreetly and impartially provides counseling for clients in crisis situations. The assistance is in the form of consultations with pairs of consultants, one lawyer and one psychologist per team. We do not investigate or verify anything, but we quietly listen to the stories of victims, we demonstrate trust, we answer questions and offer possible solutions. Above-standard help includes bedside visits to hospitalized victims, arranging weekend psychological reconditioning sessions for violent crime victims, and mediation of monetary assistance.

How many people are on your team?
We have 153 volunteer counselors at six regional centers – lawyers, police officers, state prosecutors, and judges, who are assisted by psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. I’m glad that so many people are willing to offer free assistance to people who find themselves in oppressive situations.

Do you think the volunteers share anything besides this sense of obligation?
They are mostly professionals who deal with violent crime or state prosecutors. This means they’re very busy with their work, but anytime you call, they’ll help. They’re extremely conscientious, humble, empathetic, and willing to exert their best efforts. Also, they’re psychologically strong.

How do you handle people in your organization who burn out?
There’s always the risk of burn-out in our field. This can be dealt with by setting limits and feeling secure as a team. We meet regularly to analyze the most difficult situations. We continue to exhort our workers not to take their work problems home. We try not to overload them, although setting limits can be difficult. Everything seems terribly important, and saying, “Enough! I’m going jogging,” sometimes seems impossible.

Is there a “Ten Commandments” for volunteers the breaching of which is punishable?
We have a practical codex that everyone signs. It has many rules, including confidentiality, discreet handling of data, respect for privacy, and so on.

Career highlights
1991 founded the White Circle of Safety
1993-94 established regional counseling centers for victims (there are currently six in the Czech Republic)
1996 chosen as first Czech Republic Innovator for Public and became member of the prestigious international Ashoka Society of Innovators for Public – a nonprofit organization based in the US
2001 founded DONA, the first nonstop hotline for victims of domestic violence in this country
2002 named Outstanding Social Entrepreneur 2002 at the World Economic Forum in New York
2002 called for the establishment of the Alliance Against Domestic Violence on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies
2003-04 developing a program for above-standard assistance to victims of serious violent crimes; lectures all across the nation; organizes training for police, doctors, and social workers

Has anyone ever violated the codex?
No. Probably because the people who work for us are of such high quality. This is borne out by our very low turnover.

How important is teamwork in your organization?
Enormously. A crime of violence can disrupt your life to such an extent that you require assistance in many ways. And we can provide it. We have all the professions covered that one encounters in criminal proceedings, which would absolutely not function without interdisciplinary cooperation. We can accompany clients to court, arrange separate waiting places, and even make house calls when murder is involved. We do everything we can for victims that isn’t at variance with the law. Anytime, anywhere.

To a great degree a team’s success depends on its leader. What sort of boss are you?
I’ve learned the theories and taken many courses (laughs). My problem is that I’m a demanding perfectionist, I like precise work, and it’s agony for me, because sometimes I have to turn a blind eye to something, since no one’s perfect. I have my own opinions when making strategic plans, but I listen carefully to others’ opinions, because my perceptions can be distorted by my 24-hour involvement with the organization. Above all, I’m motivated by the awareness that many people need our help. That’s the driving force for all of us.

What’s the difference between leading a team of volunteers and leading a classic team of employees?
Big difference. Employment relationships have clear rules and sanctions. With volunteers you must keep in mind that they can leave at any time. Our relations must be based on respect and common goals. So it’s important to constantly check that the leadership is heading in the same direction as the volunteers want. Also, dealing with what seem like trifles, like reporting for duty late, is different. In employment relations you can impose strict recourse, but here the only thing that brings a late-comer into line is his confrontation with a waiting room full of people and colleagues who were on time. This requires great tact on my part. I try to praise my colleagues a lot and not take their work for granted.

Although you’re the director, you regularly leave your cozy office and volunteer for the DONA hotline and the counseling center. Why?
Purely because of my need to know about everything our organization does. When I have to make a decision I don’t want to rely on second-hand impressions. I want to know how our callers change, and I want to know their problems. I have to go through this experience repeatedly, where not only reason but also emotions are involved. That’s something you don’t find in the office.






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