Vic­tim ad­vo­cates have tough, re­ward­ing job

New­ton’s pro­gram logs 10th year

The Covington News - - Front Page - By Michelle Kim

By the time peo­ple come into con­tact with Les­lie Smith, they’re of­ten at the end of their rope. They’re ei­ther the vic­tim of a re­cent crime or have seen fam­ily mem­bers vic­tim­ized by crime, have bounced around from agency to agency and usu­ally just want some an­swers.

Smith, di­rec­tor of the Vic­timWit­ness As­sis­tance Pro­gram at the New­ton County Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice, and the two other pro­gram as­sis­tants wear a num­ber of hats as coun­selor, in­ter­preter, ad­vo­cate, re­source cen­ter, travel agent, babysit­ter and friend.

“A lot of times it’s peo­ple who want to tell you what their sit­u­a­tion is and find out what their op­tions are,” said Smith. “That’s an­other huge part of our job, is just ex­plain­ing the dif­fer­ent op­tions and what the dif­fer­ent agen­cies in the county can do.”

Al­though the DA’s of­fice had al­ways sought the in­put of crime vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, said Dis­trict At­tor­ney Ken Wynne, it wasn’t un­til a few years af­ter the pass­ing of a 1995 Crime Vic­tim’s Bill of Rights in the Ge­or­gia leg­is­la­ture that New­ton County’s Vic­tim Wit­ness As­sis­tance Pro­gram was of­fi­cially formed in 1998.

The Crime Vic­tim’s Bill of Rights man­dated DA’s of­fices across the state to as­sist vic­tims and their fam­i­lies through the le­gal sys­tem in a num­ber of ways, in­clud­ing no­ti­fy­ing them of court pro­ceed­ings and the de­fen­dant’s ar­rest and re­lease on bond, pro­vid­ing sep­a­rate wait­ing ar­eas for vic­tims from other wit­nesses and pro­vid­ing a chance for the vic­tims to ex­press their opin­ion on the dis­po­si­tion of the case.

Now in their 10th year of op­er­a­tion, the Vic­tim Wit­ness As­sis­tance Pro­gram serves a vi­tal role as li­ai­son be­tween the vic­tims and the prose­cu­tors and helps guide vic­tims through the le­gal process.

“I just feel it’s hugely im­por­tant,” said Smith, who worked in the DA’s of­fice be­fore the for­ma­tion of the pro­gram and came back af­ter six years out of the work­force specif­i­cally to work with vic­tims.

Lawyers, she ex­plained, can get caught up in legalese. “Al­though the vic­tims and wit­nesses hear what they’re say­ing, some­times they walk away and they’re like, ‘Ex­cuse me. What did they just tell me?’”

The pro­gram as­sis­tants help by in­ter­pret­ing the in­for­ma­tion into lay­man’s terms.

“You can see the frus­tra­tion leave on their face once we spend 10 to 15 min­utes talk­ing to them about the very same things the at­tor­neys just told them,” said Smith. “When you’re able to spend a lit­tle bit more time with them and break it down, they’re like ‘Oh, I get it.

“Thank you so much. That makes per­fect sense to me now.’”

The vol­ume of vic­tims the pro­gram has served has grown steadily in re­cent years, said Smith, from about 1,300 vic­tims in 2005 to 2,220 vic­tims last year, not in­clud­ing walkup and re­fer­ral phone calls, all han­dled by three full-time as­sis­tants.

Around 40 per­cent of the cases of the vic­tims are do­mes­tic vi­o­lence re­lated, and they see many child abuse vic­tims as well.

Wynne pointed out the pro­gram of­ten gets the phone calls and ques­tions other agen­cies don’t know how to an­swer be­cause of their ded­i­ca­tion and knowl­edge of the county’s re­sources and agen­cies.

“ There’s noth­ing worse than be­ing frus­trated and not know­ing where to go,” Smith said.

Even if they don’t know the an­swer to a per­son’s ques­tion, the as­sis­tants will call un­til they find the in­for­ma­tion the per­son needs, she said.

Vic­tims also of­ten ex­press frus­tra­tion when a trial is con­tin­ued for rea­sons they don’t un­der­stand or that they feel the process is slanted in the de­fen­dant’s fa­vor, said Wynne.

“We just have to ex­plain to them, that’s just part of the process we have to go through in or­der to in­sure that if a con­vic­tions ob­tained, it’s ob­tained legally,” Wynne said.

One of the most chal­leng­ing parts of their job is sim­ply keep­ing track of vic­tims, who of­ten for­get to no­tify the DA’s of­fice when they move, Smith said.

But even harder than that, is be­ing able to leave their work at work.

“That’s a huge chal­lenge,” Smith said. “You don’t re­al­ize how lucky you are not to deal with some of the things peo­ple are liv­ing with daily. You get to go home, but it’s hard to block their sit­u­a­tion out of your mind.

“Hon­estly, the only way you can deal with it is to give 110 per­cent ev­ery day, do ev­ery­thing you can pos­si­bly do plus some, and you just have to rest in know­ing you’ve done ev­ery­thing you can pos­si­bly do for a per­son,” she said.

Sherry Richard­son- Land re­cently sat through the trial of the de­fen­dants ac­cused of mur­der­ing her brother, Ru­fus Tony Richard­son.

She had some prior un­der­stand­ing of the le­gal sys­tem, but the sup­port Smith pro­vided was still im­por­tant, she said.

“She kept us abreast on the hear­ings, and she was very in­stru­men­tal in moral sup­port,” Richard­son-Land said. “When­ever one of my sis­ters would break down, she would as­sure them of (As­sis­tant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Me­lanie McCrorey)’s cre­den­tials and tenac­ity to go af­ter de­fen­dants. And that eased the pain a whole lot.

“I think that’s what ev­ery county needs to pro­vide the vic­tims fam­i­lies with. Even though the pain is ex­cru­ci­at­ing, they gave some com­fort,” she added.

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