Measuring Success in Helping Professions: It’s What You Put Into It That Counts

by Alan K. Flora

One of the earliest lessons I learned during my law enforcement career was to celebrate the wins. A successful outcome in a case assured me that I was making a difference and that my efforts were worthwhile. The wins sustained me and fueled my fire to keep pushing for more. I typically measured success by how much I had helped other people. In homicides, that meant finding the truth for the surviving family members and bringing murderers to justice. With suspicious fires, success was finding the origin and cause. Sometimes that led to arresting an arsonist and preventing insurance fraud. Other times it meant proving an accidental cause that cleared an innocent person accused of wrongdoing. I especially loved my time with the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force because we frequently rescued children from abusive environments. Talk about winning; it could not get any better than that.

The problem with measuring success by wins was that sometimes we lost. Not every case had a positive outcome. Not every victim wanted help. And no matter how hard I worked on following the leads, there were times when I hit dead ends. Those were the ones that made me question my worth. It took me several years to figure things out, but I ultimately discovered that sometimes success was more about my effort than the results achieved. I still loved the wins, but I found more joy in the process. Win or lose; I learned to hold my head high if I had given it my best shot rather than carry regrets. There was one case in particular that drove that lesson home.

My professional law enforcement career began in 1991 and spanned until my retirement in 2021. During that time, I saw tremendous improvements in how the police handled family violence incidents. Today, officers must take someone to jail if there is evidence of a domestic assault, but it wasn’t always like that. When I was a rookie, veteran officers taught me that the most efficient way to handle domestic disturbance calls was to ask the aggressor (almost always the husband) if they had somewhere else to stay for the night, then give them a ride there. That was especially true when alcohol was involved, as it often was. I did not like that system, and I was vocal about it, but I was young and low of rank, and many times I was overruled during my early days at the rural North Carolina Sheriff’s Office where I started my career.

About a year into my job, a woman I will call Stacy walked into our building asking for help. There was severe bruising on her face and body and a newly stitched wound on the side of her head. Stacy seemed a bit overwhelmed and quietly told me that she had just left the hospital, where a nurse had suggested she come to our office. I remember being bothered that no one at the hospital had called for an officer to go there. That was standard practice if someone checked into the Emergency Department with a gunshot or stab wound or a suspected child abuse case.  But Stacy was thirty years old, so she was regarded by the hospital staff as an adult capable of reporting for herself if she was a crime victim.

I asked Stacy to describe what happened, and she explained that her boyfriend, “Jim,” had beaten her the night before after he had a bad day at work and got drunk. After repeatedly striking her with his fists, Jim hit Stacy in the head with a wooden rolling pin, knocking her unconscious. She awoke several hours later on their kitchen floor, then snuck out of their mobile home as Jim slept in their bedroom. Stacy sought medical attention for her head wound because it would not stop bleeding. She told me that the only reason she drove to the Sheriff’s Office afterward was that the nurse said she was supposed to go there. Stacy was still in shock and was basically doing as she was told rather than thinking for herself. After interviewing Stacy, I asked her to wait while I spoke to our Sheriff. Even though I was not a detective then, I explained to him that I wanted to take the lead and obtain a search warrant for evidence of Assault with a Deadly Weapon. The Sheriff gave me his blessing, and I got to work seeking justice.

After taking Stacy’s report, I escorted her to a home for battered women and left her there with a counselor. I then obtained a search warrant for the home Stacy shared with Jim. I found a chaotic scene with broken glass and other debris on the kitchen floor. I also observed torn, bloody underclothes and some other evidence that I believe indicated a rape, though I should point out that Stacy never disclosed a sexual assault. I located a blood-stained wooden rolling pin, which I collected as evidence. When I arrested Jim later that day, he declined to give a statement. That did not concern me because the physical evidence at the scene was overwhelming. The following day I proudly told the Sheriff about my results and expressed satisfaction that I had served justice on a very deserving offender. The Sheriff praised my work but added that he hoped I had not wasted my time. I did not understand the statement when he made it, but a few weeks later, it made sense after all.

I knew when I walked into the courtroom that something was wrong. Rather than sitting with the counselors from the battered women’s shelter, Stacy was sitting with Jim and his defense attorney. The prosecutor called me to testify, but all I could talk about was what I observed at the scene. I had not witnessed the assault, so that would be up to Stacy to describe. When she was on the stand, Stacy repeatedly uttered the words, “I don’t remember,” whenever the prosecutor asked questions about the bloody rolling pin or how she obtained her bruises and head injury. Jim did not leave the courtroom in handcuffs that day. Instead, he walked away as a free man, holding the hand of the woman he had brutally assaulted a few weeks earlier. The loss dumbfounded me, and for several years I held onto the bloody rolling pin in hopes that somehow the story would change. But I eventually accepted that some people did not want help, and I threw away the rolling pin in disgust.

I am generally a positive person who can find the silver lining around every cloud, but that loss was more difficult for me than most. I replayed it in my mind many times, imagining how I could have affected a different outcome. My job was to help people, but I could not see how anyone benefitted from my work, except perhaps the offender who was emboldened by getting away with his crime. I pushed forward and told myself that my efforts still mattered, but truthfully I was discouraged by what happened, and it was hard to see any good in it.

Seven years after Jim’s day in court, I worked as an investigator for a state agency in Asheville, North Carolina, about two hours away from the small town where I began my career. I answered a telephone call in my office one afternoon and heard a female voice that sounded familiar. She said, “You may not remember me; my name is Stacy.” I told her that I knew who she was and asked how I might be of service. She said she was calling to thank me and had never forgotten how much I tried to help her, even when she was unwilling to help herself. Stacy said that she had stayed with Jim for another five years, and they were rough, but in the back of her mind, she always remembered that someone thought she was worth saving. That eventually gave her the strength to seek help once again, and that second time she stayed away. Two years had passed since Stacy was last with Jim. Stacy wanted me to know that she was damaged but not broken, and she would be okay.

I never heard from Stacy again, but two decades later, I still get emotional when I think about that call. It reaffirmed what I had wanted to believe all along, that I did help someone, even if it took years for the results to materialize. More importantly, it taught me how important it was to show people they have value, even if they do not see it in themselves.

I did not give much thought to my mental wellness or even fully understand what that term meant two decades ago. But with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of training since then, I can see now that the call from Stacy had a considerable impact on my wellness and probably my career survival. It lifted me emotionally more than any arrest or court verdict ever had, and it redefined what I considered a win. It helped me find joy in the process of helping people without putting pressure on myself to see an immediate return. After spending my last thirteen years with the ICAC task force, I retired from law enforcement three months ago. I do not spend much time looking backward because I am too focused on what is coming next. But when I reflect on the years behind me, I am blessed to know I made a difference. For those who are still working, you don’t have to wait until retirement to feel that. If you do your job so that people know you care about them, you are making a difference every day.

Alan K. Flora
Alan K. Flora  retired in 2021 as the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Computer Crimes Unit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NCSBI). He began his law enforcement career as a Deputy Sheriff in 1992 and then moved to NCSBI in 1998, where he served on the Hostage/Crisis Negotiation Team for fifteen years. SAC Flora spent the last fourteen years of his career in the NCSBI Computer Crimes Unit as part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. From 2015 until his retirement , SAC Flora served as the Commander of the North Carolina ICAC Task Force.