A VAC’s role in ­providing safety for crime victims in court

As victim assistance coordinators (VACs), have you ever been concerned for the safety and welfare of a crime victim during trial? During my 22 years as a VAC for a criminal district attorney’s office, my job was to respond to the needs of crime victims in general—and a big part of that was to advocate for safeguards during criminal proceedings.
    I will never forget a courtroom trial where more than 10 girls, all under age 13, had been sexually abused by a deacon at a local church. The trial was very divisive, both in the church and in the community, and that same division was evident in the courtroom. The parents of all the victims and their supporters filled one side, while the deacon’s family and his backers packed the other side.
    Fortunately, I knew a few things from previous difficult trials that helped diffuse some of the tension. For example, peace officers stood in the aisle between the two sides of the courtroom to provide a bit of a barrier between them. (There were still plenty of eye daggers between the two sides, but that’s as far as the animosity went.) And when the young victims came in to testify, I sat on the end of the aisle so they could see me clearly—they could look at me rather than look at the defendant. I actually went with these child victims everywhere (to and from the waiting area, courtroom, bathroom, etc.) so that they were never alone and never at risk of encountering one of the defendant’s family members or supporters. I’m relieved to say that even with such a fiery situation, it carried on without major incident—and the deacon was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison.      
     Coordinating victims’ safety and welfare during court proceedings begins early on in the process. During my first interactions with crime victims—long before a trial—I assessed the family’s composition and background. A genogram (family tree) came in handy to record relationships between family members and to keep track of who was who. Uncovering these relationships also provided me with a good idea of what our office might expect during trial, especially with intrafamilial cases such as domestic violence or child sexual assault.
    Active listening and emotional support to the victims and their family prior to trial also helped me get to know them and provided insight on how family members interact with each other. A VAC can determine from these conversations if there is strain, stress, or other factors that may lead to tension in the courtroom. For example, a crime victim may tell you that one of the defendant’s supporters is known to carry a weapon or that a certain a family member has been acting out significantly since the crime. Such information can be invaluable in ensuring everyone’s safety when trial rolls around.
    I offer the following ideas to assist VACs in implementing specific protective measures (when needed) during the criminal justice process:
•    Discuss in detail with the prosecutor assigned to the case any intra-family animosity and potential problems you might foresee during trial. That way, the prosecutor can enlighten the judge, court coordinator, and bailiffs to implement safety precautions in the courthouse and courtroom.
•    Request from the judge or court coordinator that an area of the courtroom be set aside for the support audience of the crime victim; it should be separate from the defendant’s support audience.
•    Request from the crime victim or her family a list of supporting family members or friends who plan to be present during trial so the prosecutor has some idea who might be sitting in the courtroom. I started asking for this list after the trial of a man accused of secretly filming children bathing and using the toilet in his bathroom. Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), a group of motorcycle riders who provide protection and support to child victims testifying in court, showed up the day of trial out of the clear blue sky—the child’s parents knew they were coming, but they hadn’t told any of us! So you can imagine our surprise when more than a dozen bikers parked their motorcycles near the courthouse, marched inside, and took seats in the courtroom. After that happened, I started asking victims for a list of who might attend. I realize it’s impossible to get an exact count, but we at least need to try.
•    Ask the victim and her immediate family to arrive one hour prior to trial to avoid contact with the defendant and his supporters. I implemented this rule after a defendant’s family member confronted a child victim and her mother as they got out of their car in the parking lot—I watched the encounter helplessly from the third-floor courtroom window. From then on I instructed victims to arrive an hour early for court to reduce the chances of running into anyone from the defendant’s side. It also gives them time to get settled before proceedings start.
•    Ask the victim and her immediate family to call the prosecutor’s office once they are in the parking lot so that a VAC can arrange for a courthouse security officer to escort them to the waiting area.
•    If possible, stay with the victim in the waiting area to provide support and ensure you can ward off any objectionable encounters.
•    Request that the victim and her family not text, call, e-mail, or have any contact with anyone during the court proceeding unless it’s absolutely necessary. This was especially important in our county because the judge swore in all witnesses at the same time, so every witness was under the Rule from the very start of trial.
    I remember one domestic violence case where a reluctant female victim was subpoenaed to testify against her abuser. As I sat in the waiting area with her, I realized she was texting the abuser’s family members, who were sitting in the courtroom. These actions just add fuel to the fire (when emotions are running high anyway), and I sure didn’t want it happening under my watch. After this incident, I told every victim sitting in the waiting area to refrain from texting, phone calls, or e-mail unless absolutely necessary until they were no longer under the Rule.
•    Escort the crime victim into the courtroom and to the witness stand.
•    Remain in the courtroom during the victim’s testimony, then escort her back to the waiting area.
•    If any problems or potential problems occur, notify the prosecutor and courthouse security so issues may be addressed.
•    At the end of the court proceeding, especially if the defendant is not detained, ask the victim and her family to wait awhile before leaving the courthouse. Again, ask courthouse security to escort them to their vehicles.
    VACs are charged with many duties, such as informing crime victims of their rights, keeping victims informed of case progression, and helping victims with referrals to social service agencies. In addition to these statutory duties, VACs can be of significant assistance during court proceedings by formulating safety plans and acting as a liaison with the prosecutor to seek justice for every crime victim.

In-office visits
We at TDCAA realize the majority of VACs are the only people in their offices responsible for developing victim services programs and compiling information to send to crime victims as required by Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. We realize that VACs may not have anyone locally to turn to for advice and at times could use assistance or moral support. A major part of my job is to provide just this sort of help, whether on the phone or in person.
    Road trips have recently taken me to San Marcos and Brenham to assist VACs with in-office consultations. Thanks to both offices (and all the folks in the photos on the opposite page) for allowing TDCAA to offer support to your victim services programs! I thoroughly enjoy helping VACs because I have been in their shoes and realize how nice it is to have someone to turn to when there are questions.
    Please e-mail me at Jalayne. [email protected] for inquiries or support or to schedule an in-office consultation.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is April 19–25. This year’s theme is “Engaging Communities. Empowering Victims,” which emphasizes the role of the entire community.
    Here is a link to an online resource guide provided by the Office for Victims of Crime to help you promote National Crime Victims’ Rights Week in your community: http://ovc.ncjrs.gov/notices/ 2015ncvrw/index.html. Included are educational materials, artwork, and a theme video.
    TDCAA would love to publish photos and success stories of your NCVRW event in the next edition of The Texas Prosecutor journal. E-mail event information to me at [email protected]