July-August 2012

Remembering Suzanne McDaniel, a pioneer in victim advocacy

Carol Vance, Former District Attorney in Harris County

Suzanne McDaniel was a special person and a good friend. Her mother and my mother were closest of friends, so I knew her all her life. She always had that captivating smile. Suzanne would walk into a room, and the room would light up. She always had a compassionate heart for those who were hurting.

    In 1975 when I was District Attorney in Harris County, I took advantage of federal grant money to start new and unusual initiatives against organized crime, consumer and commercial fraud, and so on. One such new addition to the office was the Victim Witness Assistance Section, the first in Texas and second in the country. When Suzanne heard about our office undertaking this project, she immediately called me and told me that this job was made to order for her.

    “Suzanne, we are plowing new ground. I don’t even know where this is going,” I told her.

    “I know where it is going,” she replied, “and I can run that office.” So I hired her—and the rest is history.

    Suzanne assumed command and hired three people, each of whom would serve the victim-witness needs for six criminal district courts. We had 18 courts at the time, and they handled about 18,000 felonies per year. That’s a lot of victims and witnesses. The prosecutors were snowed under and barely keeping their heads above water, so victims and witnesses received little attention in cases that did not go to trial. All that most of them wanted was basic information like when to show up for court and what to expect when they got there. A new experience at the courthouse can be scary.

    Our victim-witness operation got going and was such a success that most large jurisdictions in Texas put in for similar grants. Suzanne’s operation became a role model for offices throughout the country as well as Texas. She gave generously of her time to help set up other new such offices. Suzanne excelled at this work and stayed in it the rest of her life. Along the way she received many awards. President Bill Clinton gave her the Crime Victim Service Award, and Congressman Ted Poe, a former chief prosecutor and judge, named the Congressional Victim Rights Award the “Suzanne McDaniel Award.” The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) gave her special recognition for her assistance to many offices around the country.

    Suzanne later moved to Austin and went on to work for the Texas Crime Victims Clearinghouse, a part of the Governor’s Office. She later became the Crime Victim’s Information Officer for the Attorney General’s Office. Her last job—and a dream job it was—came along when Rob Kepple hired her to serve as TDCAA’s liaison and representative for all victim assistance issues. Rob knew a superstar when he saw one.

    She loved this work and loved her close friends on staff at TDCAA. What a way to close out such a productive and unselfish life helping others. We will all miss her. I can only imagine that Someone up there might be saying to Suzanne, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Rob Kepple, TDCAA Executive Director

More than one person will tell you that Suzanne was driven by her empathy for victims of crime and a vision to help them restore their lives. She served as the first victim-witness coordinator in Houston under legendary DA Carol Vance, doing back then what so many victim witness coordinators and other prosecutor staff do today: guide the victims of crime through the criminal justice maze, offering a comforting smile and a hand to hold.  

    In the early 1980s, the victims’ rights movement began to pick up momentum, and as folks redoubled their commitment to victims of crime, Suzanne took her energy and enthusiasm for serving victims to a statewide level. I first met Suzanne when she was the director of the Crime Victims Clearinghouse in 1991, and she played a major role in the policy discussions about where the victims’ rights movement would go and how it would evolve. True to her roots, she always viewed prosecutors and the prosecutor’s office as the key to a successful victim outreach.

    In 2010, the TDCAA Board of Directors voted to create a Victim Services Section and to seek funding for a staff position to support the new section. The bottom line was that the state had never come through with the support needed for robust victim services at the local level, so it was up to prosecutors to get the job done. And y’all were there, with your support of the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation. With funding from the Foundation, we were able to make the new section—and the staff support, by hiring Suzanne—a reality.

    Suzanne had the career we all hope to have, one full of meaning, purpose, and growth, where we might leave things better than we found them. But what struck me in all my occasions working with Suzanne was her loyalty. Loyalty to the mission of prosecutors, loyalty to prosecutors themselves, and loyalty to the office and staff. She always stood up for the work you do and made sure folks appreciated just how hard you work to protect and support the victims of crime. She didn’t tolerate people denigrating prosecutors’ duties or demeaning your efforts. At times that was a lonely job, but she always spoke up for you.

    I like to think that when Suzanne came to work for you at TDCAA, she had come home.  Her enthusiasm for the new Victim Services Section and the work it is doing lit up every room she walked into.  Suzanne, you’ve passed that enthusiasm on to us, and we pledge to continue building what you have started.