Crime victims discuss the need to feel whole

Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services launches its listening tour in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — People representing multiple agencies and nonprofits focused on criminal justice and survivor advocacy rearranged the chairs in the Brattleboro Union High School's classroom Oct. 15 as Vermont's Center for Crime Victim Services held the first stop on its statewide listening tour.

Attendance was good for a Monday night in Brattleboro.

Last year, the state agency heard from mostly professionals who worked with those who had experienced a crime. This year, staff said they hoped more victims would attend the meetings.

The audience sat in a circle. Chris Fenno, the Center's executive director, explained the agency's role.

Fenno said the agency is a small one tasked with a variety of victim-related programs. Primarily:

• Direct services - Unique to Vermont's state restitution unit is the ability to pay court-ordered claims to victims and then collect from offenders. This way, victims don't need to try to collect restitution themselves.

If the court orders an offender to pay a victim, the agency can provide up to $5,000 to the harmed person on the spot. If the restitution amount is more than $5,000, then the agency will collect the balance and give it to the victim. The agency also has the ability to attach offenders' incomes such as wages, tax refunds, or lottery winnings.

• Victim compensation - The agency receives a combination of state and federal funding to reimburse crime victims for medical and therapy costs. There is a $10,000 limit.

Fenno said the largest payout last year was to survivor families of homicide. These reimbursements topped those for domestic violence cases. Fenno noted that this is because one homicide victim could have multiple family members who receive support.

Sexual assault cases also rest with the agency. The agency pays for rape kits, therapy, and medication. It also stores rape kits for future trials.

• The agency also contracts as advocates for victims in state's attorney offices, provides training, and administers a grants program with funding sources from the state and federal governments.

Community outreach

Agency staff said they came to BUHS on Oct. 15 because it's important for the agency and the community to know each other. The forum also served as a place for victims of crime to share their experiences around receiving support and accessing services.

Based on feedback from last year's listening tour, the state revamped some of its training programs.

Fenno noted that “the justice system feels weighted toward the offender.” The agency wants to bring victim rights to the forefront of conversations around criminal justice.

“That is an import thing for victims to know,” Fenno said. “Because if you talk to victims, nobody ever feels that justice was served” even if the case went in the victim's favor.

This is because no court ruling can erase the fact that someone was hurt, Fenno continued. Restorative justice helps answer the question of what a community can do to help someone who has been harmed feel whole again.

Those in the room included professionals from local nonprofits such as the Brattleboro Community Justice Center and the Women's Freedom Center; victim advocates from state agencies such as the Windham County State's Attorney's Office and the Windham County Sheriff's Organization; and professionals working in victim services, who formed the majority of the audience.

Two audience members shared their experiences trying to navigate the system after a crime.

The first shared her bewilderment and frustration with trying to get a relief from abuse order. She asked if the state could change how it issues the orders. She said she requested an order after a boyfriend broke into her house and tried to strangle her.

Despite there being a crisis, she said, the relief process felt long and complicated, and she wondered if there were any way to get measures in place sooner. She also suggested that advocates follow up with victims after a couple of weeks. In the “hailstorm” of the event, it's easy to miss important information or services, she said.

The second person to experience a crime was a man who spoke of being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after years of abuse and harassment. He shared his frustration with not receiving help when he needed it.

Many people in positions of authority - lawyers, priests, doctors, teachers, employers, police - routinely do nothing to stop a crime, or are perpetrators themselves, he said. He shared stories of workplace harassment and sexual assault.

“There are a lot of people that people place trust in, that need to be fired,” he said.

Intervention after crimes

Cara Cookson, public policy director and victim assistance program coordinator, said the agency hoped to learn more about the moment of community intervention after a crime.

Cookson asked three questions: What is Vermont doing that is positive and could do more of? What are the challenges people encounter? And what are the audience's ideas for change?

Audience members noted many things Vermont does well - for example, its restorative justice programs. Most communities are big-hearted and want everyone in the community to do well, audience members added.

Still, challenges exist.

Victim advocates from the Windham County State's Attorney's office noted that offenders and the court dictate how cases move forward. How can the state make more room for victims in the court process?

The advocates added that victims must navigate a tricky system they often don't understand. They want to see victims have more rights.

On the positive side, Capt. Mark Anderson of the Windham County Sheriff's Department said, Windham County offers multiple services, and the community has proven that it's able to come together during a crisis, such as during and after Tropical Storm Irene.

Where the landscape becomes tricky, Anderson continued, is in the spaces between high-level things like policy and on-the-ground law enforcement. He wants to see law enforcement and policymakers work on laws together.

Anderson added that the state's “mental health system is broken bad” and does not have enough beds for people seeking treatment.

Instead of relying on a statewide system, he suggested decentralizing by building a local community and grassroots network of mental health agencies focused on individual communities.

Meager resources

Alyssa Todd, executive director of Windham County Safe Place and part of the Vermont Children's Alliance, echoed many professionals' concerns about slim resources. She said her organization's services are stretched tight, especially in the areas of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Todd pointed to two issues. First, every year her organization is level funded, yet every year she sees more families, and costs keep increasing. Next, opiates have “changed the dynamic” of many families and their work with Safe Place.

She said her office was burglarized by someone seeking cash for opiates. Watching the resulting court case felt challenging, Todd said. She suggested rethinking how to handle crimes against property, especially when opiates play a part.

Multiple people involved in restorative justice programs in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls said their work focused mostly on offenders. They wanted to involve the voices of victims in the process but were not sure ofthe best way to engage them.

Cookson agreed. She added that formats like the evening's meeting weren't the best way to engage people who had experienced crime. It can feel challenging to come forward with personal stories, she said.

State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said communities and the state need to scrutinize the root causes of violence. This is hard, she acknowledged, because organizations are constantly responding to crisis.

“But if we don't start to look at root causes, we'll always be just responding,” White said.

Donna Macomber of the Women's Freedom Center works with victims of domestic and sexual violence daily.

“That person is an expert on their own lives, we don't have an agenda for them,” Macomber said. “Every survivor is unique and every survivor is an expert on their own lives.”

'More circles and more time'

After 27 years sitting with stories of harm, Macomber said, she wished every person understood the root causes of harm.

“Many of us in this room are in a response situation,” she said. “We have not had the energy to focus on root causes. But we need more circles and more time to learn about digging oppression out by the root.”

Macomber continued, “We're not schooled in the basic humanity about showing up and listening, especially [about] our own failures.”

In closing, Macomber highlighted a hole in the English language. It has words like “victim” and “survivor.” “But harm is geography we walk through,” she said. There's no word for experiencing something difficult and moving on to a new phase of life.

Despite the challenges facing victims and advocates, Fenno said, “I have lots of hope.”

She cited professionals who have made headway with different therapies to help trauma victims; communities and individuals that are better informed about crime; and said the days of trying to get an abused woman back with an abusive husband are gone. She noted also that the #MeToo movement has given voice to those who have been sexually assaulted.

People are able to share their experiences in new ways, Fenno said.

At the same time, the root causes are overwhelming, she continued. How do communities change so that they treat everyone better?

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