Victims' Rights Caucus

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Crime victims find ally in advocates
Several programs available to keep them informed, help them heal
By Kathy Lynn Gray
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Catherine Boulant was kicked and stomped so hard by a carjacker in 2008 that her face and collarbone were shattered.
But throughout her recovery and her attacker's court case, the Capital University professor found support she never knew existed: the Franklin County victim-assistance program.

When a prosecuting attorney interviewed her for details of the assault, victims' advocate Amy Pridday was there. When her attacker faced a judge, Pridday sat with Boulant in the courtroom. When medical bills mounted, Pridday helped her apply for payments from the Ohio Victims of Crime Compensation fund.

And when Boulant stood in court and told her attacker how the brutality had affected her life, Pridday was by her side.

The advocacy program is part of a growing movement to help victims recover after a rape, the violent death of a loved one, a scam, a kidnapping or even a bank robbery.

Local victims' assistance programs now operate in the Columbus city and U.S. attorneys offices, the FBI office, the Franklin County prosecutor's office and the state prison system.

Nationally, the first programs began in 1972 as victims pushed for more rights. Since then, numerous state and federal laws have been enacted, and the federal Crime Victims Fund was established in 1984. In 1997, Congress clarified that a victim has the right to speak at a defendant's sentencing.

Advocates are part parent, part advocate and sometimes the only person victims confide in, said Jane McKenzie, director of Franklin County's Victim/Witness Assistance Unit, where Pridday works.

When McKenzie started 25 years ago, she was one of three advocates in the unit, which is part of the county prosecutor's office. Now, there are 11, including two in Juvenile Court.

The advocates help victims of violent crimes that include homicide, sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and child abuse. Advocates are assigned to cases after a suspect is indicted by a grand jury; each has about 90 cases.

"We're supposed to act as a support system as well as a liaison between the victims and the prosecutors," McKenzie said.

Advocates keep victims apprised of court actions, a job that used to fall to prosecutors; assist victims with finding counseling and other help; and sit with them during court proceedings.

Although the Franklin County victim-assistance program started in the mid 1970s, the FBI's is just 9 years old. That program has grown from five advocates across the country in its first year to 120 in field offices nationwide and more than 20 at the FBI's headquarters in Washington.

The FBI's advocates start work as soon as an investigation begins. They talk to victims, sometimes at the crime scene, and explain the trauma reactions they can expect. They accompany agents as they interview victims; notify victims of services and case status; and provide emergency money for food, clothes and lodging if needed.

FBI Special Agent Harry Trombitas of the Columbus field office first viewed the advocates with suspicion.   "I was real skeptical and thought the department was just giving us another hoop to jump through," he said.  But he found that victims helped by advocates made better witnesses in court because they are more stable. And because advocates kept victims posted on the progress of their case, agents didn't have to.

Lisa Miriello, a victim specialist with the FBI in Columbus, said violent crimes such as bank robberies and cases involving children are priorities, but specialists also help victims of white-collar crimes, cybercrime, terrorism and civil-rig