Domestic violence victims in the Rogue Valley have lost an advocate in the reshuffling of services at hospitals run by Asante Health System.

Domestic violence victims in the Rogue Valley have lost an advocate in the reshuffling of services at hospitals run by Asante Health System.

Asante on Friday terminated its domestic violence programs at Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford and Three Rivers Hospital in Grants Pass.

"I regret to inform you," begins the message on Sally Melton's machine. The Asante domestic violence coordinator will no longer be advocating for women and their families at RVMC, she said.

"Today's my very last day," Melton said.

Asante representatives confirmed funding for the hospitals' domestic violence coordinator was not renewed.

"We determined it was a duplication of already existing services within the community," said Win Howard, vice president of operations for Asante.

But the loss of the in-hospital coordinator "leaves a hole in the way the community responds to domestic violence," said John Norton, deputy district attorney for Jackson County.

"There aren't enough resources to begin with. Anytime a program shuts down, it's a loss," he said.

One young woman, Carmen Ayala, has first-hand knowledge of the help Melton provided. The 25-year-old was strangled and left for dead by her ex-boyfriend in the shrubs near RVMC on Aug. 26. Ayala suffered broken blood vessels and lay in a coma on a respirator for days after the Sunday morning attack. Melton was there when she woke up, Ayala said.

"She was there for me in the hospital when it first happened," said Ayala. "She let me know there was support out there for me."

Ricardo Gutierrez, 30, pleaded guilty to felony assault on Oct. 16 and was sentenced to 70 months in prison for the Measure 11 crime, Norton said.

Melton cannot discuss specific client information. But she stressed victim recovery is a complicated process, and that domestic abuse cuts across all ages and socio-economic strata.

"I love to be able to watch a woman find her strength," Melton said. "What people don't understand is what a long process it is. They can be very judgmental. They think it could never happen to them."

Asante began its domestic violence program in 1995. Melton has been involved for five years. Her job was to provide a safety net for victims both in the hospital and within the community, as well as provide domestic violence education in schools, workplaces and civic organizations, she said.

"We helped women who were not only in the hospital, but throughout the community. We were on the front lines," said Melton.

Asante hospitals' social workers will continue to coordinate support for victims with outside agencies. The hospitals' sexual assault nurse's position remains in place "and will not change," Howard said.

"Victims will not just be handed a business card," he said. "We will continue to make referrals."

But losing the coordinator's position is a loss for victims, said Anna D'Amato, director of victim services at Community Works.

Community Works operates in partnership with Asante and has more than 2,000 women and children enrolled in its programs annually.

Melton's in-hospital location provided immediate assistance and a safe place for victims to divulge their abuse, D'Amato said.

"A hospital just might be a safe place for a woman to talk about what's happening at home," said D'Amato, adding it was cruelly ironic the program coordinator positions were cut during Domestic Violence Month.

"What Sally's been able to do is spend a little more time with the victims. It's been a great collaboration and partnership," D'Amato said.

Ayala said she would not have called another agency. It was Melton's frequent hospital room visits that helped Ayala find a safe path away from the violent man who nearly took her life.

"They were the ones who helped me," said Ayala. "On my own, I wouldn't have known what to do. How to do it. We need that support."

Melton said she is considering finding alternate funding so she can create a new program with the help of community partners that would serve the entire Jackson County medical community.

Her goodbye message urged callers to contact a Dunn House advocate at HelpLine at 779-4357(see correction note below) and ended with a personal wish.

"I wish you wellness and strength and safety," Melton said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The original version of this story included an incorrect number fo Dunn House, a shelter for women and children. This version has been corrected.