Victims of juvenile crime lose advocacy program

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Crime victims in Cape Girardeau, Perry and Bollinger counties may soon find themselves sitting alone on a courtroom bench -- confused, angry and wondering if justice will be served.

They were recently victimized by a juvenile, perhaps physically or sexually abused. But no one will be there to explain complicated court procedures, help fill out paperwork or simply hold their hands as they listen to lawyers discuss the traumatic details of the crime.

More than 200 victims of juvenile offenders a year in the 32nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri will have no one to do these things unless someone steps forward to pick up where county workers have left off, said Cape Girardeau County juvenile officer Randall Rhodes.

For three years, the Victims of Juvenile Crime Program has been successfully operated by the circuit's juvenile division, he said. But as of Monday, the advocacy project, funded by the Federal Victims of Crime Act, no longer exists.

The problem wasn't a shortage of funds or the draining of manpower on his office, Rhodes said. The grant amount for this year was $32,581, which paid for a full-time victims specialist and expenses. Ultimately, it came down to a decision that the program should be run by an independent agency or organization -- not the court or juvenile division, he said.

"Even though it was running well and was a good program, we would like to see the advocacy come from the outside," he said. "That would provide more checks and balances and the program would run better. Most of the groundwork is done -- I think it's time to separate it from the court administration."

He started discussing the change with juvenile division Judge Peter Statler in the spring, Rhodes said.

"It's a gamble," he said. "I might be back in another year with another program. But I've seen it work in other programs and I think it's worth the risk."

Help made available

Rhodes is hoping the gamble will pay off and that another agency, church or non profit organization will build upon the program's "modest beginnings," he said. He is willing to help find funding and teach how the program operates.

To victims, the court process can appear complicated, confusing and cold. But in Rhodes' office are three-ring binders stuffed with thank-you letters and positive evaluations sent in by grateful recipients of the program.

Before they had an advocate, most victims believed it was the perpetrators who had all the rights and protections of the law after their own were violated, said former victims specialist Tammy Adams.

Adams was the juvenile division's first victims specialist. She now assists parents of mentally ill children in Topeka, Kan., with Keys for Networking.

"I was pretty much told I'd be starting it on my own," she said.

Like her successor, Laurie Spain, Adams informed victims of case changes, and even sometimes, just held their hands. She provided them notification of their rights, something many of them were shocked to learn, she said.

In addition to scheduling counseling sessions and assisting with impact statements, she would also help victims attempt to gain some form of restitution.

Since October 2002, 145 juveniles have worked more than 2,768 hours of community service, 830 hours of victim restitution and have paid back $4,278.59 in restitution to victims, according to the program's most recent annual report.

"This program is so worthwhile because a lot of people don't know victims have rights," Adams said. "The victim program helps juvenile offenders, too. They have to see the victims in court and that helps them learn that what they did really hurt someone."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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