Victim advocates have tough, rewarding job
Newton’s program logs 10th year
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.