A place to heal

“Nima Afshar, left, and Karl Medley, members of the Empire State Council of Carpenters union local 11, hang insulation in what will be the Rockland District Attorney's Office special victims center at Good Samaritan Hospital.”

Working with so-called special victims — the most vulnerable in the population — has long been a struggle for law enforcement. The circumstances of many cases, typically involving domestic violence and abuse of children and people with disabilities, can create walls in obtaining evidence to bring perpetrators to justice. Police have long used multi-disciplinary teams to concentrate on solving and prosecuting these kinds of crimes. Rockland and Westchester officials have developed the next step: centers that provide services for special victims. These centers not only can help heal the victim but can help build better prosecutions.

Special victims include children and the elderly, those with developmental or mental disabilities, domestic partners who may rely on their abusers financially, and those trapped in the web of human trafficking or in the country illegally. The very nature of these crimes underscores the victim’s vulnerability, and the process of bringing the perpetrator to justice often revictimizes the person who was targeted in the first place again and again.

Two approaches

Westchester is opening a Family Justice Center in January, administered by Westchester County’s Office for Women and funded by a $1 million, two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The center will be in the White Plains court complex, so victims will have access to counseling and other specialized support from various agencies, plus be in a place that can meet their law enforcement and legal needs. “They will be safer getting help in one secure location, and will not have to re-tell and relive their abuse with each service provider,” according to the Westchester County Office for Women grant application. Participating agencies include My Sister’s Place, Pace Women’s Justice Center and the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention.

The “Spirit of Rockland” Special Victims Center is to open by February on the grounds of Good Samaritan Hospital. The project is mostly a volunteer endeavor — the hospital is donating the building, and various labor groups and local businesses have supplied the workers and material for its reconstruction. The project has used some $2,000 in asset forfeiture money and a $59,000 grant from the American Bar Association for technical equipment.

Instead of directing a victim to several locations for help — such as a police station, hospital, social services office and grand jury room — many services will be consolidated in the 3,000-square-foot building in Suffern, said Peter Modaferri, chief of detectives for the Rockland District Attorney’s Office.

The building’s location, on the grounds of a hospital, gives quick access to medical and mental health support. Prosecutors and local police will come there for interviews, as will social workers from the county’s Department of Social Services. Rockland Family Shelter and the Rockland County Department of Mental Health will be accessible at the building. Victims will offer grand jury testimony via a live feed or tape.

Better healing, prosecution

The Rockland and Westchester centers will be run somewhat differently, but their basic goal is the same. “It’s really meant to provide comfort for our victims,” said Detective Mary Murphy of the Rockland DA’s Special Victims Unit. That, she said, can lead to stronger cases.

Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said he hopes the supportive environment will engender more cooperative victims, particularly in the context of domestic violence. Law enforcement officials maintain that such cooperation sometimes leads to revelations that alleged prostitution cases are really instances of human sex trafficking. Such disclosures might only come from victims who feel safe enough to speak the truth about their circumstances.

Ken Donato, retired Ossining town police chief and member of the Westchester County Domestic Violence Council, concurs. “We recognize that some people don’t trust police,” he said, and law enforcement needs to nurture connections in some communities, often working with victims’ advocates and other agencies.

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years,” Murphy said, “and what we’ve learned is, successful prosecution relies on the health of the victim … when you keep a family and victim together, as best you can, you keep the prosecution together.”

Murphy cited as an example the domestic violence victim who now has nowhere to live and no money to feed her children. “When a victim comes here, Social Services comes here,” Murphy said, noting that she doesn’t have the kind of expertise to navigate food stamps and other kinds of support DSS can offer. “We’ve all realized we can’t do it alone; we need our partners.”

A special victims center, like the ones planned in Rockland and Westchester, has the potential to help heal the victim while improving the prosecution of cases. But it can do more. “It can help to build a healthy community,” said Sister Fran Gorsuch, Good Samaritan Hospital’s vice president of mission.

source: http://www.lohud.com/article/20091220/OPINION/912200337/1015/OPINION01/A%20place%20to%20heal


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