The Louisville-based company Appriss was founded in 1994, galvanized by a local murder case. Mary Byron, a 21-year-old, was stalked and killed by a former boyfriend who had been released from prison after serving time for crimes he had previously committed against her. The case drew attention to a system that fell short in notifying victims about their offender’s release so they could be aware and protect themselves from harm.
One year after Byron’s murder, Jefferson County, Kentucky became the first community to institute automated telephone notification for crime victims and other concerned citizens. Today that system is known as VINE® —Victim Information and Notification Everyday, used across 48 states and thousands of communities across the nation. VINE provides crime victims and concerned citizens access to timely and reliable offender custody information through a toll-free telephone number, website or mobile application. Users may also register to receive automated notifications relating to changes in custody status via telephone, email or text message. Now, 23 years later, Appriss, still headquartered in Louisville, has launched an enhanced VINE system that offers users innovative functionality and expanded access to victim services.
Josh Bruner, President of Appriss Safety, said that enhanced VINE takes the technology to the next level to support victims and connect them with services they need. “Only one in ten victims gets the help they need to get them back on track, even though there are a lot of great resources out there. We re-imagined it from that perspective. For VINE, we do a great job with the notification component, but the enhanced platform really expands on the information component. For example, the enhanced VINE features a very robust service provider directory that allows users seeking assistance to directly connect with both local and national service providers.”
Appriss provides live support through its Customer First Center (CFC) call center. The CFC is operational 24/7/365, and is staffed locally by over 80 sensitivity-trained representatives. The CFC fields more than 250,000 calls annually from victims and others to who call the toll-free telephone number seeking offender information.
CFC Director Jill Collins has worked with major call centers her whole career. She said that what makes the CFC unique is the people. “It’s not your typical call center where it’s cable or help about a bill,” she said. “Our representatives talk to victims throughout the day and provide support for individuals searching for offenders and their status. If that status is changed, some are very fearful for their lives. On the flip side are the offenders’ family members, who are concerned on their own side about their loved ones and their release.”
Collins said the job requires a heart full of empathy. “Many of our team members have been victims themselves, so they take personal ownership of the critical quality of the call and of the care of the person they’re speaking with.”
“We are very proud of all our staff in the call center,” said Bruner. “VINE has always had a live customer service component to it, but over the years we’ve really enhanced our ability to handle those calls. Responsiveness is very important to us. We don’t put people in a queue and make them wait. In fact, we answer 96 percent of calls in 40 seconds or less.”
In 2016, the CFC received more than 80,000 inbound calls regarding in-custody Kentuckians, and more than 350,000 notifications were provided to Kentucky VINE users through outbound calls, emails, and TTY, a device used to communicate with hearing- or speech-impaired individuals. Collins said that while most of those inbound calls to the CFC are around victim notification, some involve situations where a caller is in a critical or dangerous situation. Bruner described one such traumatic situation that happened about a year ago, noting it is not the first time something like this has happened.
“One of our team members took a call and instantly understood something terrible was happening on the other end of the line,” said Bruner. “The caller put the phone down and wouldn’t respond, but you could hear some kind of assault taking place, screaming and yelling,” he said.
Bruner and the team looked at the area code for that part of the country and were able to track down and identify local law enforcement, giving authorities enough information for them to find the woman being assaulted. Bruner said the woman’s partner had assaulted her and then locked her in a closet.
“There are many cases like that where we are helping people who don’t know what to do and they’re scared,” Bruner said. “By having people that really care answering those phones quickly, we’re able to have a profound impact on people’s lives.”
Collins said her team members at the CFC are invested in that mission.
“You have to be purposeful and continue to provide training for team members because some of it is pretty traumatic,” said Collins. “Once they have the ability to handle those type of calls, and take the personal out of it, they can hang up afterwards, and say, ‘Wow, I made a difference.’
“Our team has a great deal of empathy for callers, and pursue excellence on every single call, because you just don’t know what difference you could be making in people’s lives.”
From the top-down at Appriss, employees hold a true sense of responsibility and a heightened amount of empathy when it comes to the victims that they serve. The goal at Appriss is simple, and remains unchanged since its founding 23 years ago: keep victims as safe, knowledgeable and as empowered as possible. Everything else flows from there. The enhanced VINE system lends itself entirely to this goal, and those at Appriss are proud to deliver an even higher degree of knowledge and power back into the hands of victims through this revolutionary tool.
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