A large part of my job as Director of Victim Services is to travel across Texas visiting prosecutor offices (on request) offering training, assistance, and education on victim services and how best to help crime victims who are encountering the criminal justice system. Training prosecutor staff personnel may involve an in-office group presentation or individual one-on-one training. Effective training on and knowledge of state laws regarding the rights of crime victims help prosecutors and victim assistance coordinators (VACs) overcome potential obstacles they may face down the road.
In January, Assistant Criminal District Attorney Bill Squires asked me to give a 1½-hour presentation to Bexar County’s victim service specialists on victim assistance programming and time management tips, as well as an hour of training to prosecutors on how a victim assistance program can help them.
Before the training, Victim Services Director Cyndi Jahn took me on a tour of the office, and I learned more about how Bexar County runs its program. It’s a very busy office, with about 15,000 felony and 50,000 misdemeanor cases filed every year. Cyndi told me that her staff of 38 advocates (plus an administrative supervisor, an office assistant, and Cyndi herself) met in-person with more than 9,400 victims, accompanied 3,400 victims to court, and made 22,000-plus phone calls to victims and witnesses in 2015 alone. Whew!
I found out that Bexar County assigns its victim advocates to a particular division of the office (juvenile, family violence, child abuse, protective orders, etc.) and to a single court so that they work with the same subject matter and with the prosecutors assigned to that court. This arrangement allows victim assistants to see cases through from beginning to end, even if the prosecutors can’t. “Because prosecutors can rotate through the different courts and divisions fairly frequently,” Cyndi explained, “it is really important to the victims to maintain the consistency in knowing and trusting their advocate.”
And while the 38 advocates do all of the usual tasks on behalf of victims (keeping them apprised of court dates or plea agreements, assisting with victim impact statements, accompanying them to court, making travel arrangements, etc.), one advocate, Monica Guillen, handles all of the applications and filings for Crime Victims Compensation (among other things). “So with just a quick phone transfer, the victim can receive help applying for benefits,” Cyndi says.
I was so impressed with how victims are given such personal assistance in Bexar County—and that’s possible because the VACs are a consistent, knowledgeable presence in each court. It’s a wonderful way to serve such a large jurisdiction of almost two million citizens. Thank you, Bexar County, for allowing me to tour your program, bring training to your staff, and share with our members here at TDCAA what good work you are doing in your community.
Another in-office visit
My next stop was the Coleman County DA’s office—I had received a request from District Attorney Heath Hemphill to spend some time with Shayla Carter, the newly hired victim assistance coordinator. The Coleman County DA’s office is like many other small prosecutor offices where staffers wear many hats. Shayla, too, has other job duties, and one is being the VAC. She has been in her current position since last August and is new to victim services, and she was very eager to learn. I shared ideas with her about how to comply with Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure when affording crime victims their rights, and I put her in contact with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division so she can complete her Texas Victim Assistance Training (TVAT) online. We also covered the Attorney General’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, the Victim Impact Statement process, and the numerous organizations that offer free pamphlets and brochures for her to hand out to crime victims.
TDCAA’s in-office victim services assistance is designed to help brand-new VACs (like Shayla) as well as those with years of experience (like the advocates and assistants in Bexar County). Please reach out to me, and I will develop either group or individualized training for your office too. Email me at Jalayne [email protected] for inquiries, support, or scheduling an in-office consultation.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (NCVRW) will be recognized April 10–16. This year’s theme is “Serving Victims. Building Trust. Restoring Hope,” which focuses on the importance of early intervention and services in establishing trust with victims, thus beginning to restore their hope for healing and recovery.
Here is a link to an online resource guide provided by the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) to help you promote NCVRW in your community: www.ovc.gov/ awareness/about_ncvrw.html. Included are educational materials, artwork, and a theme video. You can also sign up for notifications from the OVC about National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
TDCAA would love to publish photos and success stories of your NCVRW events in the next edition of The Texas Prosecutor journal. E-mail event information and photos to me at [email protected]