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Conference: A team approach to victims' rights

By By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
Aug. 12, 2002
The Wesley House Community Center hosted a two-day conference in Meridian last week focusing on violent crimes against women and children.
Wesley House operates more than 30 community programs in Meridian, including professional counseling and support for victims of violent crime in Lauderdale and surrounding counties.
One of the speakers at the conference was Dr. Marlene A. Young, of Oregon, an attorney and founder of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. She is also a member of the victims committee of the American Bar Association and is a founding board member of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
Young and Ginger Grissom Stephens, associate director of Wesley House, met with The Meridian Star's editorial board last week.
The Meridian Star: What was the purpose of the Making a Difference for Victims of Crime in 2002 conference and what sort of response have you had?
Ginger Grissom Stephens: It has been geared toward all aspects of victimization and all the professions involved in taking care of the victim. We have had a good turnout from law enforcement, the district attorney's office, several judges, social workers, therapists and counselors and SANE nurses which are Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners.
The speakers have been outstanding. We've had speakers on sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence and Judge Ted Poe from Texas spoke to us about innovative sentencing. There were standing ovations.
Continuing education units were given for attending the conference and that usually means that people come initially to get credit, but the evaluation forms have been outstanding and they have made comments like, Thanks for the great conference, I learned something today, I have some new tools, I'm excited about this, I can be creative.'
We capped the conference off with Dr. Young. It is because of her and the organization she is a founder of, NOVA, that our nation has started to come alive and step up to the plate for the victims of crime.
The Star: What is NOVA?
Marlene A. Young: We were founded in 1975 and our primary purpose initially was to serve victims of crime. Since that time we've expanded our services to include victims of other disasters as well as victims of war and terrorism.
The services we try to provide focus on training and technical assistance for local programs, such as Wesley House. We also try to provide direct services where there are no victim services and that's what has gotten us involved in providing community crisis teams to places like New York and New Jersey in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
We are a non-profit organization and we lobby for change. We try to change the laws as well as change the constitution of the United States to protect victim rights.
The Star: What laws have you changed and what laws are you working on changing?
Young: We've been involved in changing laws in all 50 states, starting with things like state victim compensation, also looking at bills of rights for victims and state constitutional amendments to give victims the right to be informed, present and heard at all critical stages of the criminal justice proceedings.
One of our big missions is to translate those state constitution bills of rights into a federal constitutional amendment. We have not seen a lot of implementation of those laws and to a large extent judges seem to ignore them in the courtroom because to some extent they feel like defendant rights are enshrined in our federal constitution, but victim rights still don't exist.
The Star: What do you focus on when you speak at conferences?
Young: What has been happening over the last year in response to the terrorist attacks because it has captivated the attention of the United States and to some extent, the imagination of what people can do to help those victims.
While all of that focus and attention has been on compensation for those victims of terrorism and services and providing crisis efforts, all of which I feel is justified, at the same time we've turned our backs on the ordinary victims of domestic terrorism that are in our households among our children and in our streets.
There have been huge problems since last year with states that are facing budget cuts where funding has been cut to local programs and compensation programs have been cut. At the same time, ironically, we focus this attention on these victims of terrorism. To me, we cannot forget the others that are within our midst.
The Star: What created the spark in you to form NOVA?
Young: I started out working with a sheriff's department and elderly crime victims. The elderly crime victims are often the most vulnerable, they don't have protections and they are often given very low status in our criminal justice system.
It didn't take me long, being exposed to a number of what we might call simple victims of things like burglary, theft or vandalism, to see the devastation that would occur in their lives, sometimes taking them years to begin to put their lives back together and a lot of them giving up hope because they were elderly and didn't see someone there to help.
That became my first interest but then it branched out to other areas of crime victims as I got more exposed to it in the criminal justice system.
The Star: How does Mississippi compare to other states in protecting victim rights?
Young: Mississippi is not in the forefront of victim services yet. There's a lot that can be done. What has happened here in Meridian with Wesley House is we've given this program an award of distinction a few years ago because of what they have done toward domestic violence, sexual assault and the like. We've recognized what they have contributed but in many other parts of the state, and in the judicial system here in Mississippi, there's a long way to go.
It doesn't just take laws on the books, it takes conscientious judges, law enforcement officers and prosecutors to make a difference. There's only so much that a local community program can do without the support within the system to guarantee those rights for victims.
In most states, Mississippi included, there are good laws on the books, but what I think we have to do is to ensure that law enforcement officers receive appropriate training and then service is made a priority. Often when I'm talking to law enforcement, they focus on the fact they have to arrest and they have to apprehend the criminals, which is true, but they also have a duty to the victims.
The Star: What is needed in terms of helping victims more in Meridian?
Stephens: We need to work on having a more functional multi-disciplinary team where the turf boundaries are down and the heart is there for the victim. We need more training as far as where does one role start and stop and the other one begin because victims of crime, especially children and the elderly are questioned and re-questioned.
Wesley House has helped a lot to avoid that from the Child Advocacy Center and the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, but people need to leave forensic interviewing to professional forensic interviewers who know what they are doing, because that will save a case.
The body that was assaulted is a crime scene. We need to protect that, we need to protect the rights of the victim and we need to make sure he or she is not re-victimized by law enforcement, then medical professionals, counselors and it goes on and on. We need to work as a team.

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