Victim advocates become a crucial link between prosecutors, families

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 22, 2014 

They are hands to hold, shoulders to cry on, voices for those too sad to speak.

Victim-witness advocates sit with families during trials, escort them weeping from courtrooms, explain to them the complications of criminal justice.

Now a quarter-century old in Columbus, the program benefitting crime victims and their families started in the summer of 1989, five years after passage of the federal 1984 Victims of Crime Act. The legislation created a national victims-compensation fund with fines from federal prosecutions and authorized states to establish similar compensation funds for crime victims.

Today the Columbus-based Victim-Witness Assistance Program for the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit has six full-time caseworkers and four volunteers in training, said Shelly Hall, the program director.

They compensate for what had been a deficiency in criminal prosecutions -- victims and families often were ignorant of what was expected of them and left to fend for themselves if they suffered from serious injury or property loss.

The police had their job to do; the prosecutors theirs; but no one's job was to focus on helping the victims, or in homicide cases, the survivors.

Some police and prosecutors aren't suited to empathy. Their job is to fight criminals, not care for the bereaved.

"I've got prosecutors who are hired specifically for their abilities in the courtroom, and that is not always consistent with someone who will hold a hand and let somebody cry on their shoulder," said District Attorney Julia Slater.

"I've got some assistant DAs who are real bulldogs in the courtroom, and that's what I want because that's what they're hired to do is to fight in court. And sometimes we need a victim's advocate who has a different role, who is there to be empathetic with the victim and not to fight with the defendant."

Also crucial is maintaining contact with victims and their families, to ensure they're up to date on court appearances and other news.

"They are critical to our communication with victims," Slater said. "They do things that we don't do, like victims' assistance programs, victim compensation. They have resources that we don't have at all. ... If we're preparing for indictment, or preparing for trial, they step in and help us with those victims as far as communication with them, notice of dockets, and literal hand-holding in the courtroom."

Sometimes they stand in for families who want to read "victim-impact" statements before a judge sentences an offender, to tell how the crime affected them.

Sometimes relatives who thought they could read those statements find they cannot. They start to sob and can't see the words through their tears, nor speak clearly.

"I have known on more than one occasion a family member take the piece of paper they had intended to read to the judge, turn to the victim advocate with tears in their eyes and say, 'I just can't.' And the victim advocate can then stand and read that on behalf of the victim, who's just unable to carry on, given the emotions of the situation."

In homicide cases, helping families keep alive the memory of those lost to crime is part of the job.

The courtroom experience is a trial for the survivors, too.

Crime-scene photos, autopsy photos, gruesome testimony from medical examiners, all come into evidence.

That's too much for some to endure.

Victim advocates let them know it's coming up and sit with them if they want to stay.

"They will literally go to court with the victim and hold their hand, if necessary, during the court process, and become a shoulder they can cry on, again, quite literally," Slater said.

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