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‘Victims have rights now … We want to help’

For Program Coordinator Pam Bellrichard, communication is the key when it comes to victims’ rights. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)

By Chuck Nowlen

Thirty years ago, nobody seemed to care.

Crime victims had almost no rights or assistance. They were often banned from the courtroom and couldn’t speak up at sentencing hearings. They got no compensation or other help rebuilding after the most traumatic events of their lives. Basically, they were on their own.

What a difference three decades makes, says Pam Bellrichard, coordinator of the St. Croix County Victim/Witness Assistance Program and she and her team couldn’t be prouder.

“I’m humbled to do my job, and I’m honored to do my job,” Bellrichard explained in an interview this week.

“The best part is just being with a victim from the start, knowing that they had someone to lean on and knowing that they made it through the process and were able to see the results. It’s a very challenging job that we do here, and sometimes it’s very frustrating. But it’s also very rewarding. We really want to help people.”

April 6-12 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and this year Bellrichard’s office is marking the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Victims of Crime Act, which funded victim compensation and assistance programs across the country.

“Before that, the criminal justice system was geared primarily to defendants’ rights,” she recalled. “But, with the act’s passage, victims have rights now. And that was a very important change.”

Bare-bones beginning

When the St. Croix County program was first set up in 1990, the office had just one full-time employee, and services were bare-bones by comparison, Bellrichard noted. It also took awhile for the necessary awareness and coordination to mature among judges, attorneys, law enforcement, social-services agencies and community resources.

Today, however, that coordination is well-rooted, and the office’s services range from answering questions about testifying in court to determining whether victims qualify for restitution, property return, compensation and community referrals.

The program also includes a federally funded legal advocate –- Selena Peterson in St. Croix County -- who helps crime victims with temporary restraining orders and injunctions, domestic-abuse services and follow-up when restraining orders and injunctions are violated.

Sometimes, the cases are high-profile –- the 2012 Aaron Schauffhausen murder case, for example –- but all of them get the same attention, Bellrichard said.

“We don’t choose our victims, but we do try to focus on doing everything we can for everyone we see,” she explained.

The other members of the county team are Victim/Witness Specialist Karn Winberg and Services Assistant Jill Beskar. The program is part of the St. Croix District Attorney’s Office.

“We’ve all received thank-yous from people we’ve served,” Bellrichard noted. “We’ve all had victims contact us years after they worked with us, just to say ‘hi’ and tell us what they’re doing. And that’s really humbling. That’s really neat.”

Story behind the numbers

In 2013, the office received 3,418 referrals involving 303 victims, but those figures typically do not reflect the workload involved, Bellrichard said.

“That 303-victims number could mean 3,003 contacts,” Bellrichard said. “One thing I’ve learned is that communication is the key here. A lot of our time is spent talking to victims. Many have a lot of anxiety about face-to-face contact in court, for example, so we do anything we can to make the experience of being in court less anxious for them.

“We’re also the liaison between district attorneys and victims, so there’s a lot of questions and back-and-forth there. Law enforcement, probation and parole, sexual assault counselors, juvenile agencies and community resources, for example, are also involved. Basically, it’s keeping everybody on the same page with communication.”

Bellrichard noted that over the years, a wider range of victims has been brought under the office’s wings –- people with disabilities; gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders; children exposed to violence; the elderly; and those who have been preyed upon by labor- and sex-traffickers.

Services for victims and survivors also have become more inclusive and multidisciplinary, drawing on the strengths of teamwork and the involvement of allied professionals and the public.

“That teamwork aspect is big –- absolutely, and it involves the entire system,” Bellrichard said.

Meanwhile, she sees more challenges ahead for the next 30 years –- the growth of financial fraud and online victimization, for example; the increasing role of DNA in criminal justice; and the ongoing work of reaching out to underserved victims, marginalized populations and those whose trauma is hidden or underreported.

“Nobody wants to be part of the criminal justice system,” Bellrichard noted, “and sometimes the result is not what the victim wanted it to be. Our job is to explain the system to them, to be there for them in whatever way we can and to do everything we can to make the system work for them.”