By Jalayne Robinson, LMSW
TDCAA Victim Services Director
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Tamra Frey, a victim assistance coordinator (VAC) in the DA’s Office in Mason County, wondering if there are any guidelines for keeping crime victims informed during the COVID-19 pandemic where most prosecutor offices and courthouses are closed to the public. “We are doing Zoom meetings and have YouTube for victims to view,” she wrote. “Personally, I am so missing the courtroom and my interaction with victims. Is there anything else to offer?”
I thought I would reach out to other VACs to see if I could gather ideas from other offices, and here’s what a sampling of folks are doing elsewhere.
Mona L. Jimerson
Director of Victim Services
Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Gregg County
Unfortunately, we all see far too many cases and sometimes they all run together. Each of our victims have had probably the worst (and probably most important) thing in their life happen to them, which is why they are our victims. We need to be showing them that it is important to us as well.
I had been feeling so bad when someone would call about a case, and I knew I should know which case they were affiliated with but could not pull it out of my brain. Then I had to ask them, “Who is your loved one?” and I did not want it to come across like their case was not important enough for me to remember it.
So we have made a list of every open case on file, and I also made a binder of all cases involving death. I included a few pieces of information, such as the case number, victim’s name, contact people, phone numbers, and little notes about each case that reminds me which one it is. All of this information is in Odyssey, but while I am making small talk with victims on the phone and I can’t remember, I can flip through the binder to nudge my memory.
We also started working on binders with all assault—family violence and child sex assault cases, and we are attempting to reach out to the victims more during this time. We just give them a call and tell them that due to COVID we are not able to have a jury trial but we wanted them to know that we have not forgotten them, that their case is very important to us. The binders have been a great tool because I can readily see the cases where there’s a victim and reach out to him or her. I use that time to see how they are faring and if they have any thoughts or concerns I can assist with. Most have been very appreciative wondering what was going on. Some had heard the stories about people getting let out of jail because of COVID and were concerned that their offenders would be released. All in all, they have been very appreciative and some even happy to have someone to visit with for a moment.
If we are not reaching out to them, then victims can begin to feel as if they are lost or we do not care. They should know that we do care, and we are thinking about them even if we can’t actually see them in trial yet.
COVID has taken a toll on many people in a host of different ways. By reaching out to each of our victims on a more regular basis, you never know whose lifeline you will become. We are working on building relationships that we will need when we finally are able to hit the ground running and the courts open.
Victim Assistance Coordinator
County & District Attorney’s Office in Lamb County
Our office has been keeping victims and their families informed mostly by telephone or email. If we need to meet with victims, they are invited to our office wearing a mask and social distancing. Because we are not having jury trials, we have much less need to meet person-to-person with our victims. Those who had trials set but that were canceled because of COVID-19 deserve to know what is happening in their cases. We give them a quick phone call to explain, and most people understand. There have only been two bench trials scheduled since all the COVID restrictions.
Interactions in-person have changed a lot with people wearing masks. It is hard to judge a person’s emotional state while they have their mouth and nose covered, and it is difficult to hear them speaking. I am so ready to get back to life in the courthouse before COVID!
Assistant Director of the Victim Services Division, District Attorney’s Office in Harris County
At one point early on we were all working from home; however, we currently have a small number of VACs working in the office on any given day. Our wonderful IT department created a computerized victim information management system (VIMS) for us, which was in the works prior to COVID, where each VAC has his or her own “dashboard” and can log into the system to view and track the cases each day. Once the VAC has called the victim (what we refer to as the “initial contact call”), the VAC enters the victim’s email address and case notes into VIMS. The system will email the VIS, Crime Victims Compensation application, and other pertinent information, as well as applicable counseling resources, with just a few mouse clicks! Several of our VACs have county-issued laptops or are able to log into the county computer system remotely via their own home computer. All of our VACs are issued county cell phones also, so communicating with victims while working from home has not been an issue for us. Of course we utilize Zoom for meetings with victims, court accompaniments, and trainings. As far as court accompaniments, the court coordinator will give the victim access to the court’s Zoom link at the time the case goes before the judge.
There is also much more that our VIMS system is capable of doing; this is just a quick overview.
Cynthia L. Jahn
Director of Victim Services
Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Bexar County
We don’t have any written procedures on how to do our jobs during this pandemic, but we have had several Zoom meetings with victim assistance personnel to keep in touch and make sure everyone is on the same page. Obviously, all our courts are shut down, but it really depends on the judges as to how much activity is taking place in their courtrooms and virtually. All courts have cancelled weekly dockets, but we have one or two district court judges who tend to call a few cases virtually each week. The county has at least one criminal district court judge in the office each week. They come in on a rotating basis. They can take care of minor hearings and pleas virtually. Misdemeanor courts are pretty much the same. As far as I know, there have been no trials of any kind.
Our advocates are staying in touch with victims by phone. They work primarily from home but come into the office only when they need to pick up and drop off files. They meet with their assigned prosecutors regularly, by phone or Zoom, and every now and then they set up Zoom meetings with victims. Although the courthouse is open, we are not allowing any non-staff personnel into the office. We are still mailing out VISes (Victim Impact Statements) and returning calls to our main phone line—nothing really innovative or special. Just treading water until we get through this mess. I have found that no one really wants to talk about what a horrific backlog this is causing in the court system. If we thought the system moved slowly before, wait until we open back up with thousands of cases pending in each court.
Seminar and Board Elections
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the interest of keeping everyone safe, the 2020 TDCAA Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar has been cancelled. Please continue to check www.tdcaa.com for information on upcoming training and for information on the Board elections for 2021.
Professional Victim Assistance Coordinator (PVAC) recognition is a voluntary program for Texas prosecutor offices designed to recognize professionalism in prosecutor-based victim assistance and acknowledge a minimum standard of training in the field. Applicants must provide victim assistance through a prosecutor’s office and be or become a member of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
Applicants must either have three years’ experience providing direct victim services for a prosecutor’s office or five years’ experience in the victim services field, one of which must be providing prosecutor-based victim assistance. Training recognized for CLE, TCOLE, social work, and/or licensed professional counselor educational credits are accepted under this program.
Training must include at least one workshop on the following topics:
• prosecutor victim assistance coordinator duties under Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
• the rules and application process for Crime Victims’ Compensation.
• the impact of crime on victims and survivors; or
• crisis intervention and support counseling.
Applicants must show that they have already received 45 total hours of training in victim services (which is equivalent to the number of hours in the National Victim Assistance Academy program created by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime).
An applicant with 10 years’ experience in direct victim services (five of which must be in a prosecutor’s office) may sign an affidavit stating that the training requirement has been met in lieu of providing copies of training receipts.
In addition to these experience and training requirements, five professional references are required from individuals not related to the applicant. One of the letters must be from the elected prosecutor in the jurisdiction where the applicant has been employed, and at least one of the letters must be from a local victim services agency in the community who has worked with the applicant for one year or longer. The remaining three letters can be from other victim services agencies, victims, law enforcement representatives, assistant prosecutors, or other criminal justice professionals who have knowledge of the applicant’s skills and abilities in the field of victim services.
The deadline for PVAC applications, which can be found at www.tdcaa.com/resources/victim-services, is January 31, 2021. Find detailed requirements at the same link.
Victim services consultations by Zoom
As TDCAA’s Victim Services Director, my primary responsibility is to assist elected prosecutors of Texas, VACs, or other prosecutor office staff members in providing support services for crime victims in their jurisdictions. I am available to provide victim services training and technical assistance to you via phone, email, or videoconference via Zoom. The services are free of charge.
If you would like to schedule a Zoom victim services videoconference, please email me at [email protected] Many VACs across Texas are taking advantage of this free victim services training. Please let me know how I may be of assistance to you and your office!