Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Attorney General's Survivors Council

 The tide is turning, my friends. There is change coming, change that will impact all victims, positively.

Yesterday a group of 27 survivors of violent crime met together with Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear and Gretchen Hunt, director of the Office of Victim Advocacy, with a common goal of protecting victims. General Beshear formed this council to help advise his office and legislators on topics important to victims, because no one understands the needs of a victim quite like a survivor. I am honored and humbled to be part of this group. There is no place that I would rather be.

This council is the first of its kind, not just in Kentucky, but the nation as a whole. While I am proud to be part of this inaugural council, I cannot help but feel a little sad that it has been so long in coming, not just for me, but for all those represented on the council.

This is going to be a smattering of thoughts, really. All of us, at least the ones I talked to, were a little bit overwhelmed by the support we felt yesterday. All of us had to self-advocate in one way or another during our journeys. It was truly amazing to be among such a large group of people who were on my side. As my dear friend and fellow survivor/fighter said, it was an "automatic sisterhood."

The folks on this council come from all across the commonwealth and have experienced all kinds of violent crimes. There are parents who have lost children to gun violence. Parents who have lost children to drunk drivers. And parents who have fought when their children were abused by others. There are others who have survived childhood sexual abuse/assault, campus assault, and stranger rape as an adult. There are survivors of human trafficking. There is a young woman who witnessed a mass shooting, but since she was not injured and "only" witnessed the massacre, was not afforded any sort of support. I heard from others who experienced victim shaming, like I did, from people who we thought were in positions to protect us. We shared tears. We shared anger. We shared with General Beshear our frustration at how many ways the system let us down.

The council has been charged with the task of advising and assisting the AG on matters related to victims of crime which may include: awareness initiatives, training efforts, publications, policy, and legislative initiatives, and to ensure that all of these efforts are victim-centered. Interestingly, the federal government has defined victim-centered as an approach which:

  • seeks to minimize retraumatization associated with the criminal justice process
  • by providing the support of victim advocates and service providers
  • empowering survivors as engaged participants in the process
  • providing survivors an opportunity to play a role in seeing their offenders brought to justice.

Let's review this using my case as an example. 
  • retraumatization- aka victim shaming, such as calling the court clerk to check on the case, to be told "oh yeah, I know him and can't believe he'd do such a thing." Or being told by a commonwealth attorney "you're pretty, you have all your teeth, and you speak well. I can try this case." Or being told by the prosecutor "The judge is tired of this case, I'm tired of this case..." Yeah. It's trauma. I heard plenty more examples of this re-trauma yesterday, some of which was simply unbelievably egregious.
  • Support: not all prosecutors offices have victim advocates. Hardin county didn't. I dealt with someone who wouldn't tell me her last name or what her exact title was, simply that she was a liaison. The special prosecutor's office did have an advocate, and she was very nice and sweet. She however failed me over and over. She could not explain the legal system to me, and would only tell me I had to call the prosecutor and ask her. I asked the advocate for something to help my husband, and she never came up with anything. I ended up finding things online and highlighting the parts I thought applied most to me.
  • Empowering survivors to be part of the process: Well, I was whether they wanted me to be or not. Honestly, the second prosecutor did more to empower me than anyone, and that was only in the last 8 months of the case. Many times I was simply an annoyance, the squeaky wheel, the one who was not going to go away without an answer. 
  • Justice: I was definitely involved with the road to justice in the last few months. This was welcomed by my second prosecutor. The first prosecutor, not so much. 
We were also encouraged to get friendly with our legislators. Not a problem. I'm on it.

I'll be back in Frankfort next week for Children's Advocacy Day, and then in April for Victim's Rights Day.