My Turn: Digging deep because crime survivors deserve it
April 4, 2006
Their photos smile back at us, part of our in-progress Victim Memorial Wall to honor those in our community who have lost their lives as a result of crime. Adrianna Patterson, ten years old when her father forcibly carried her into the path of a semi-truck; Drew Reynolds, finishing a long day of work when a driver on meth crashed into him; Jesse Roberts, a delightful, talented young man, returning from a computer repair for a blind woman, incidentally caught up in the road rage driving of two suspects. These, and so many other cherished people.Four years ago, fate lead me a job I never knew existed victim advocate. I was eager to return to a meaningful job in social services. After a six month process of interviews and a background check, I was very excited to begin my new career. From my current perspective, I can say it has been an enlightening, frustrating, rewarding and, at times, heartbreaking journey.As advocates in Nevada County Victim/Witness, our role is to provide direct help to crime victims and witnesses to mitigate the emotional, physical and financial trauma they suffer. We bring our education, experience, relationships with law enforcement and concern to their side. We keep victims posted on case status, provide emotional support and practical information. We are a resource to navigate a baffling legal system and a link with the state Victim Compensation Program, which can pay crime-related medical and counseling bills. In a society where such services often do not rate highly in budgetary decisions, most people are surprised and grateful to learn that our program exists. In fact, every county in California has a victim/witness program, funded (at a stagnant rate) by fines collected from convicted criminals. Nevada County Victim/Witness, part of the Probation Department, was established in 1984. What sort of questions do victims have? Why did the defendant plead not guilty when she knows she committed the crime? Can I find out if the suspect has AIDS? Will my child have to testify? Am I required to speak to an investigator? Do I need a lawyer? Will the suspect get my address? How can I get my property back from evidence? What is a PreSentence Report? How do I write a Victim Impact Statement?Typically, victims of violent crime are very fearful of experiencing further harm from the suspect. Bail issues and knowledge of the suspects whereabouts are concerns. Fear of testifying in the presence of the suspect is nearly universal. To assist, advocates attend hearings, communicate/intervene with law enforcement and the court, provide a private waiting room at court, and connect victims to resources that help give peace of mind. The ripple effect of a crime is extensive. Family relationships shatter when a child is molested by a relative. Friendships and marriages are stressed when a victim cant get over it.Conversely, victims sometimes feel they arent supposed to get over it, arent supposed to ever feel happy again. With every crime there are intense, disruptive consequences nightmares, missed work, loss of faith, loss of privacy, depression, increased fearfulness, etc . At times, all an advocate can do is be a witness to victims suffering. While the court must be impartial, it is defendant driven. Victims statutory rights are vaguely defined or not backed by sanctions. Defendants essentially control the speed at which the case proceeds and each hearing, each delay, brings the crime survivors grief, anger, and stress to the forefront. They live for months or years with the uncertainty of a just outcome to acknowledge their extreme losses. The lengthy court process connects us with victims for years, and the intimate nature of the experience often binds us for a lifetime. The best part of being a victim advocate is the privilege of knowing, and I hope helping, some very exceptional people. Exceptional doesnt mean crime survivors are incredibly brave or stoic or noble, though at times, all of them are, and remarkably so. Exceptional refers to the fact that they are vulnerable human beings, involuntarily brought into a perplexing legal system, and they are coping, revealing the depth and resilience human beings can bring to the unbearable.While it is true that in our job we sometimes find ourselves feeling sad and almost overwhelmed at the suffering caused by violence and the difficulties victims endure, we are inspired by the people we have met to dig deep, keep showing up, and keep caring because crime survivors deserve it.Brenda Collins is a Victim Advocate with the Nevada County Victim/Witness Assistance Center.