Bar Journal - Spring 2004
State Office of Victim/ Witness Assistance
By: Sandra Matheson, Director
The State Office of Victim/Witness Assistance, within the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, is committed to ensuring that all victims of crime in New Hampshire are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The experience of victims in New Hampshire is very different today than it was years ago.
CRIME VICTIM RIGHTS IN THE PAST…
- When their daughter was raped and murdered, they found out about her death through a phone call. They had to take a loan out to pay for her funeral and they had no insurance to pay for mental health counseling. The defendant was a juvenile; and under the juvenile confidentiality laws, the family was unable to obtain any information on the facts of the case. They were never notified about what was going on in their case; and there was no victim/witness advocate available to support them through the criminal justice process. When the case ended in a plea negotiation, they read about it in the newspaper. They were never given the right to speak at the sentencing of the murderer.
- When a drunk driver killed their child, everyone just called it an "accident". After all, "didn’t everyone drink and drive at some point in their lives?" When the driver was convicted, she was sentenced to 3 months in jail - after all, "she really didn’t mean to kill anyone."
- When the sexual abuse began at the age of four, she was told that no one would believe her, not even her own mother and that if she told anyone she would be punished. Silence was her only answer. There were no programs in the schools to encourage her to come forward. There were no services available to assist her. The abuse continued until she moved out of her home at age seventeen. When she finally decided to report the years of abuse, she was told there was nothing that could be done about it because the statute of limitations on the crimes had run out.
- When she was raped by her date, she went to the hospital for a sexual assault exam, which included the invasive process of pulled hair standards and routine toxicology testing. She had no medical insurance and was sent a bill for over $1000 for collecting evidence in her own case. The police questioned her as to why she was out so late at night and what she was wearing. No one believed her, not even her friends. After all, she knew the guy, she went to school with him and everyone knew, he would never do something like that. There was no crisis center to call for support and no county victim/witness advocate to guide her through the process and tell her "it was not her fault".
- He first started beating her right after she got pregnant with their first child, and over the years it just kept getting worse. She thought about leaving him many times; but she had no job, three children, no money, no family support and no place to go. And, besides wasn’t she to blame? There were no battered women shelters, no domestic violence laws or protective orders, no one to turn to for help. Even her minister told her she should stay in her marriage. Once, she even called the police; but she was told that it was a family affair and that she and her husband should work it out for themselves. There was no thought of arresting her husband despite her black eye and bruised face.
CRIME VICTIM RIGHTS TODAY…
Since those real crimes against real people, New Hampshire has made tremendous progress in recognizing and ensuring the rights of crime victims. In 1985, the state’s first prosecution-based Victim/Witness Assistance Program was created in Hillsborough County. In 1987, the State Office of Victim/Witness Assistance was created legislatively (RSA 21-M), to (a) provide 24-hour direct services and support in all of the state’s homicide cases; (b) coordinate efforts among the county attorneys, law enforcement and other agencies in developing and standardizing services for victims of crime statewide; (c) develop protocols and policies; and (d) provide training to all of the multidisciplinary professionals involved in these issues.
New Hampshire is one of a limited number of states, where all homicides, with the exception of negligent homicides, are prosecuted out of the Attorney General’s Office. This enables a centralized victim services unit to be involved from the onset of the investigation. The Office has two full-time victim/witness advocates who are on-call 24 hours a day.
When a homicide occurs anywhere in the state, an advocate responds to the scene. The advocate is responsible for notifying the victim’s family of the death of their loved one and for providing immediate crisis intervention and support to both family members and witnesses to the crime. Services provided by the advocate are extensive and can include arranging for the cleanup of the homicide scene, informing the family of the results of the autopsy and assisting them with funeral arrangements. As the case proceeds through the criminal justice system, the advocate provides services and support to the family. These include orientation and information on the court process and procedures, notification of case information (e.g. status, hearings), accompaniment and support at all pre-trial and post-trial hearings, and employer, school and creditor intervention, if needed. The advocate is also knowledgeable about community resources and referrals and assists families with obtaining victims’ compensation funds and property return.
Services do not end with the disposition of the case, but continue throughout the post-conviction, sentence suspension/review, and parole hearings. The relationship between the advocate and the family can go on for years.
From 1990 through 2002, the advocates responded to 259 homicides, of which 119 (or 46%) involved family violence. With each homicide, the advocates face the suffering and loss of victims and witnesses every day, but continue to meet the demands for their services with a strong sense of dedication and commitment.
When not providing direct services in homicide cases, Victim/Witness personnel also provide consultation and training to the county victim/witness programs as well as intervention and referrals in response to calls, complaints and requests from New Hampshire citizens.
In addition to the direct services homicide program, the goal of the State Office is to ensure that the rights of victims of crime are protected and to reduce the impact that crime and the resulting involvement in the criminal justice system has on the lives of victims and witnesses statewide. Much progress has been made in this regard over the years, through continued legislative advocacy and leadership in various initiatives.
In 1989 the state legislature passed the Victims Assistance Fund, which is funded by an assessment on all state fines and penalties. With funding now available, by 1993, Victim/Witness Programs had been set up in all of the state’s county attorney’s offices, including the rural northern counties where services had been almost nonexistent. The effort to standardize services and support for New Hampshire crime victims was taking shape.
With passage of the Victims Assistance Fund, the Victim’s Assistance Commission was established. The Commission provides compensation that helps to minimize financial hardships for victims of violence. Victims, who already suffer emotionally and physically, no longer are deprived of essential mental health counseling, or go bankrupt trying to pay for the cost of medical treatment, or have to take out a loan to pay for the funeral of their loved one who was murdered.
The state now pays for the cost of the sexual assault medical forensic examination and victims are no longer being re-victimized by being sent bills of $1000 or more. Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners are now available in many hospitals to provide consistent comprehensive medical care that respects the emotional and physical needs of the sexually assaulted patient, while collecting the best possible evidence.
The New Hampshire Crime Victims Bill of Rights, passed in 1991, entitles victims to 21 legal rights, including full orientation and participation in the criminal justice process. This law changed the way "the system" views the role of crime victim. Judges now ask for the input of the victim before imposing a sentence on the defendant. Victims are being treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Other signs of progress in recognizing crime victims’ rights? New Hampshire has comprehensive domestic violence protection laws, presumptive arrest policies, and availability of emergency telephonic protection orders by the court. With 24-hour confidential crisis center services available statewide, victims of domestic violence are now being offered the support and protection they need to escape the violence in their homes. The creation of the new crime of stalking gives law enforcement a tool to intervene in cases before the violence occurs.
The statute of limitations in child abuse cases is now 22 years past the age of majority (age 40), empowering victims to seek justice years after the crimes occurred. Confidentiality surrounding crimes committed by juveniles was changed, and victims of violent crimes committed by juveniles now have the right to information in their cases and the opportunity to be heard.
In 1998, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections created a Victim Services Unit to provide information, support and safety for victims during an offender’s sentence to corrections. There is recognition that a crime victim’s trauma does not end with the sentencing of the offender.
It is with the involvement from the State Office of Victim/Witness Assistance that these significant changes in victim’s rights have occurred over the years. In addition to working on these legislative endeavors, the State Office of Victim/Witness Assistance is responsible for numerous statewide projects that strive to standardize services and support to victims of crime in New Hampshire. The Director of the Office represents the Attorney General on numerous committees and statewide initiatives including:
- Chairing the Sexual Assault Protocol Committee, which published the first state protocol on the medical response to sexual assault cases and provided multidisciplinary regional training on the protocol to over 2500 professionals. The Committee was responsible for developing a standardized sexual assault forensic evidence collection kit, which is used in every hospital in the state. These kits are distributed free of charge out of the Attorney General’s Office. In 1991, this project won the "National Wyeth Award" for the best public service project in the country for the enhancement of health services to women. The medical protocol has been revised and updated twice as significant changes in forensic evidence collection occur. In 2001, the committee introduced Sexual Assault: A Protocol for Law Enforcement Response and Investigation of Adult Sexual Assault Cases and trained over 800 professionals in regional trainings. The Committee is currently working on developing a protocol designed to enhance the prosecution of sexual assault cases.
- Member of the New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, a multidisciplinary Commission formed in 1993, whose mission is to develop and implement programs to reduce the level and seriousness of domestic and sexual violence, and to increase awareness among the public, governmental and private agencies and the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government, of the cause, effects and magnitude of the issues.
- Chairing of the Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence Protocol Committee which has developed multidisciplinary protocols designed to promote an effective community intervention in response to domestic violence. Protocols created include law enforcement, prosecution, medical, mental health, probation and parole, the courts, victim services, elder abuse, home health care providers, Division for Children Youth and Families, employee assistance programs, clergy, education, elder abuse, home health care providers and emergency medical services. This was one of the first projects of its kind in the country. Over 1500 professionals were trained on the use of the Protocols at six regional training programs held around the state. Victim resource notification tear off sheets, were developed and distributed to all of the state’s law enforcement agencies. The Committee has just finalized a revised edition of the protocol on the law enforcement response to domestic violence, incorporating recent changes in the domestic violence statute.
- Chairing the Governor’s Commission Conference Committee, which organizes and sponsors an advanced Statewide Conference on Domestic and Sexual Violence every spring for over 500 multidisciplinary professionals.
- Executive Committee Member of the New Hampshire Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee that reviews all cases of domestic violence related homicides in New Hampshire and makes recommendations for systematic improvements to prevent future deaths. The Committee produces an Annual Report to the Governor on its findings and recommendations.
- Member of the New Hampshire AmeriCorps Victim Assistance Program Advisory Board, part of the national community service program, which provides trained victim advocates to work full-time in district courts, crisis centers, and police prosecutor offices.
- Chairing of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Program Advisory Committee, a statewide program which has trained and certified over 70 nurses to provide comprehensive medical care to victims of sexual assault. SANE nurses must demonstrate competency in conducting a medical/forensic examination as well as the ability to provide expert testimony in court when necessary. The Attorney General’s Office certifies the SANE nurses in currency of practice.
- Chairing the New Hampshire Crime Victims Rights Week Committee, which since 1988 has organized the annual commemoration of victim rights week, by holding a memorial service and vigil involving hundreds of participants.
- Member of the Domestic Violence Health Initiative Leadership Team, which created domestic violence teams in each of the state’s hospitals and is responsible for conducting domestic violence training for medical professionals. In addition, the Team produced a training video on how to conduct routine screening for domestic violence with all patients.
- Member of the National Association of Attorneys General Victim Services Advisory Board, which works on a national level to improve the rights of victims of crime.
- As a certified instructor and regular presenter for the recruit academy of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, the Director has been involved in the development of the current law enforcement training curricula for sexual assault, domestic violence, death notification and other victim issues, in an effort to continue to improve the treatment of crime victims by law enforcement personnel.
In addition to the Office’s involvement in these initiatives outside of the Attorney General’s Office, the Office is responsible for the direct administration of the following:
ATTORNEY GENERAL’S TASK FORCE ON CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT…
The Attorney General’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect was created in 1989, with the Director of the Office of Victim/Witness Assistance serving as Chair. This multidisciplinary task force is dedicated to improving the investigation and prosecution of child abuse and neglect cases in New Hampshire. Funded by federal grant money from the Children Justice Act, some projects that the Task Force has been involved in, include, developing multidisciplinary protocols on the identification, investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse and neglect, including a comprehensive Medical Protocol, sponsoring day long discipline specific trainings and organizing an Annual Child Abuse and Neglect Conference each fall for approximately 450 professionals.
The Task Force was responsible for setting up fully equipped videotape interview rooms for interviewing child victims in some counties and sponsoring and distributing a videotape for sexually abused children, designed to alleviate their fears when going through the medical exam. Two booklets were developed and distributed statewide, one for teenagers and one for young children, designed to provide them with information and support while going through the New Hampshire criminal justice system.
NEW HAMPSHIRE CHILD ADVOCACY CENTER PROJECT…
In Collaboration with the Governor’s Commission on Child Protection, the Office is currently involved in a State Child Advocacy Center/Multidisciplinary Team (CAC/MDT) Project, whose goal it is to set up model CAC/MDTs in each county in a further effort to standardize the handling of child abuse and neglect cases, limit the number of interviews and minimize the trauma to the child victim. The Child Advocacy Center of Rockingham County, which was created in 2000, is being used as a model for the state. County meetings have been held throughout the state and teams are currently being established in each county. In collaboration with the National Children’s Alliance, the Office is coordinating program development and training for the members, including a daylong CAC training in conjunction with the Annual Child Abuse Conference.
STATE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE WORKPLACE PROJECT…
In partnership with the Governor’s Office and the State of New Hampshire Employee Assistance Program, the Office was involved in the creation and implementation of the State of New Hampshire Domestic Violence in the Workplace Policy, which was introduced to all state employees in October 2000, along with a Guide for State Employee’s brochure and informational outreach posters. Each state agency was asked to designate a Domestic Violence Liaison to be responsible for the implementation of the project within their agency. The Office sponsored two daylong training sessions for these liaisons, along with security personnel. Three training sessions for state agency supervisors and additional training sessions for specific agency personnel have been conducted upon request.
NEW HAMPSHIRE ADDRESS CONFIDENTIALITY PROGRAM…
People escaping from violent situations often need to relocate and establish a new address in order to prevent their assailant from finding them. In response to this issue, the New Hampshire Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) was legislatively created in 2001, to be administered by the Attorney General’s Office. The ACP allows victims who have recently relocated and live in a location unknown to their assailant, the opportunity to protect the identity of that location. The program sets up a substitute address that participants can use to receive services such as obtaining a driver’s license, registering a car or applying to vote as an absentee voter. Mail sent to this substitute address is then forwarded to the participant by the Office, thus keeping their location confidential.
NEW HAMPSHIRE CHILD FATALITY REVIEW COMMITTEE…
In addition to the Task Force, the Office also administers the New Hampshire Child Fatality Committee. The purpose of the New Hampshire Child Fatality Review Committee is to conduct a full examination of unresolved or preventable child death incidents. The mission of the Committee is to develop, as appropriate, recommendations to the Governor and relevant state agencies with the intent of effecting change in public policy or practice, or to cause the development of new initiatives, which could lead to the reduction of preventable deaths in children and youth.
The State of New Hampshire is fortunate to have a network of dedicated, committed victim advocates, working in and out of the justice system who work tirelessly on behalf of those citizens who have been traumatized by crime. The cooperation and assistance of the victim of a crime is critical to the successful prosecution of an offender. Victims play an important role in our criminal justice system. The goal of the State Office of Victim/Witness Assistance’s is to continue to ensure that the rights of all victims of crime in New Hampshire are protected, without taking away the rights of the defendant, and that all citizens involved in the system are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Sandra Matheson is Director of the State Office of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program at the Department of Justice, Concord, New Hampshire.