The Herald Bulletin

October 13, 2012

Victim's advocates reach out

By Abbey Doyle
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Madison County is unique when it comes to victims of domestic violence.

While many Hoosier counties have a victim’s advocate working at a women’s shelter or a sheriff’s department, there are 13 advocates in Madison County. They are from four agencies that work together on a regular basis. Their goal is to keep a victim’s best interests in mind.

They operate through Alternatives Inc., Anderson Police Department, Madison County Sheriff’s Department and the Madison County Prosecutor’s Office. Each play a different role but many times services will overlap.

Lessa Johnson, coordinator of the Anderson Police Department’s Victim Assistance Unit, said she and Christy Jones, victim assistance specialist, review the cases each morning from the previous 24 hours to determine ways to follow up.

They try to contact the victim by phone and often arrange an in-person meeting. If the victim can’t be reached by phone, a letter is mailed or, in some cases, they may go to the victim’s home. They check on the victim’s welfare, ensure they are in a safe place and offer emotional support. The victim will be given information about the case and told how the process should work.

“We work together to make sure they understand what is going on and feel supported,” Johnson said.

After that initial contact, the work isn’t done.

Jones and Johnson continue to be advocates for the victim fulfilling several different roles. They may aid the detectives or officers in the case by proiding them information from the victims to help get a better case for court, they ensure the victim is prepared for court and knows when and where she should be and the two are in city court — where the majority of the domestic violence cases are heard — almost every day.

“In some cases we are just adding oil to the wheels of the criminal justice system because sometimes they get squeaky,” Johnson said.

Jones said their role is to help provide emotional support and in some of the more serious cases she or Johnson will get called to respond to a crime scene to help victims and their family immediately.

“A lot of times police officers go out to a situation and are focusing on their safety, the safety of those involved and the community,” Jones said. “They are not necessarily looking at the immediate needs of the victim. That’s our job. We are good tools within the police department to help victims, survivors or anyone with questions.”

Victims involved with perpetrators with felony charges are handed over to the victim assistance providers with the Madison County Prosecutor’s Office.

The roles of Gay Doss, coordinator of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department’s Victim Assistance Program, and Jaime Wichita, victims assistance provider with the program, are similar to Jones and Johnson except they work with all of the law enforcement agencies but Anderson and Elwood police departments. They assistant in Elwood, Pendleton and Edgewood city courts as well.

“Our services often overlap but the great thing is that we work well together,” Doss said. “We all have the victim’s best interests in mind.”

Doss said a misconception is that those outside of the city of Anderson don’t have the victims assistance services, but she said although they aren’t as visible, their services are an important complement to what the Sheriff’s Department does. They provide support and advocacy at the time of incident as well as throughout the court process.

Wilhoite said the victims they contact aren’t always receptive but that the goal is always to make a difference and at least make them aware of the help that is available.

Melinda Padgett, director of the prosecutor’s Victim Assistance Program, said she or one of the four others in the office advocate, support and assist the victims involved in the felony cases. They keep the victims up to date on their cases, ensures they understand the process and help provide support or resources the victim may need.

Often times by the time Padgett sees the victims they are far removed from the crisis, usually four to five weeks after the incident occurred.

Alternatives Victim’s Advocate Christy Jones said she works closely with the other agencies on a regular basis.

“It is unique to a lot of areas that we cal all work so well together and feel comfortable with each other all knowing that each agency has the victim’s best interest at heart,” she said. “There are many counties that have no idea what this is like.”

Alternatives Victim’s Advocate Kandi Floyd said the cooperation is unmatched statewide.

“We all want to make sure these victims are safe,” she said. “We will bounce ideas off of each, make others aware of what is going on and provide support.”

Alternative’s provides advocacy and resource for both those who have gone through law enforcement and those seeking help from an abuser without contacting law enforcement. The agency has advocates, a 24-hour crisis line, shelter and many other resources.