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Viewpoint: Supporting victim advocates

Sarah Yacoub

Domestic abuse and sexual assault cases are particularly hard on the survivors. While that may seem like a statement of the obvious, our justice system doesn't always respond in a way that suggests that we get it.

As named victims in criminal cases, survivors embark upon the painful path of repeatedly reliving the trauma of the incident in furtherance of the chance at justice and the promise and or hope that justice will provide a sense of safety and, ultimately, closure. Again, our justice system doesn't always respond in a way that suggests that we get it.

In a 2015 article entitled, "Accused Batterers Get Free Attorneys. Domestic Violence Victims Don't. That Needs to Change," senior attorney Denise Grab explained that while abusers are given no or low-cost representation in their criminal cases, the system is not structured in a way to provide the same level of support to the survivor.

Sometimes survivors choose to have an attorney represent them as the named victim in the criminal cases. That attorney serves as a liaison between the survivor and the District Attorney's Office, the survivor and the court. In Wisconsin, as with most states, victims of crime have rights.

Chapter 950 of Wisconsin Statutes lays out the rights afforded to victims (and witnesses) of crime. An attorney helps some of the stress of the load of keeping up with and asserting those rights off of the shoulders of named victims. One example of how this might come into play is the following: defense attorney asks to modify bond such that the defendant gets released at a court date without providing notice to the court or to the district attorney. Whether it's youth, inexperience or just the effects of being busy and human, the district attorney and or the court may not realize the victim's right to be notified of hearings, including bond modification hearings. An attorney representing the named victim can assert those rights on behalf of the victim such that she or he need not have to shoulder that burden.

Not sure whether it's a spillover of our neighbor's Minnesota nice or a shared culture where we want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and not think or talk about nefariousness in our community, but there's a dark reality to these cases. The reality is that if victims are no longer cooperative or willing to come to court, the case essentially goes away. While there are scenarios by which justice is done and this reality is not a bad thing, the darkness comes from the fact that too often defense attorneys and or their clients spend their time while the case is pending trying to dissuade and wear down the named victim as litigation strategy to beat the case. The dark reality is that too often defense attorneys will push their case out as far as possible, knowing that statistically the delay will benefit their client. Witness bullying and dissuasion is often hard to prove but you know it's happening because the named-victim experiences months of intimidation and pressure from various sources to not cooperate. So, to recap, you have a survivor who is trying to cope with and work through the pain, injuries and trauma of the crimes committed; he or she waiting months if not a year for resolution on the case; and that survivor has to shoulder the social pressure that stems from persons trying to make the case go away while the case is pending. It's a lot.

A victim advocate, an attorney, provides the named victim the support to know that he or she is not alone, which sometimes is the difference between the success or failure of the defendant's attempt to bully survivors into silence.

While some bench officers are receptive and supportive of attorneys representing the interests of named-victims, unfortunately, others are not. As members of the community you can make a difference by paying attention and speaking up. Local papers cover court events. You can follow cases on Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (Google "CCAP"). Go to sentencings. Show local judges that we care about these cases and that the community is watching. Write letters to the editor when it seems like abusers are getting slapped on the hand when they should be going to prison. Hold elected officials accountable.