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‘A little bit of light in the darkness that they have’

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Jeffco’s victim specialists provide comfort, guidance to those affected by crime

By Deborah Swearingen

When Ramsey Turner first walked in to meet with the victim specialists at the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, she was overwhelmed.

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The process is intimidating. It requires reliving a traumatic experience with a stranger. For Turner, it meant detailing years of domestic abuse, and she had trouble opening up at first. But once she committed to the process, her victim specialist, Sabrina Martinez, became family.

“It’s so important to have a trusting person, somebody that you feel comfortable talking about your traumatic experience with. And you know, it’s really difficult to kind of go through and see all these different faces and tell the same story over and over,” Turner said.

As such, it takes a special person to do this work, but the victim specialists at Jeffco say they wouldn’t trade their jobs for the world. For Alane Holsteen, who began working as part of a victim advocate pilot program with Jeffco approximately 28 years ago, the job is her chance to effect change, to enable healing, and to break the cycle of power and control so frequently associated with domestic violence and sexual abuse.

“They’ll never be the same as they were before, but what can we do to empower them to heal?” asked Holsteen.

“Really, the word that I always use is empowerment. I’m not there to do it for them. We’re not. We’re there to empower them to do it for themselves and to get back on their feet and to make decisions, healthy decisions hopefully,” she added.

Martinez agreed. Though victim advocacy is one of many needs in the world, it’s one she’s been called to.

“When I meet victims, I’m meeting them during some of their most difficult moments in their life,” she said, “so I just kind of like to be a little bit of light in the darkness that they have.”

What the job entails

According to the Office for Victims of Crime, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, victim advocates perform a myriad of functions, including speaking or acting on a victim’s behalf and serving as a liaison between the victim and the court system to minimize the physical, psychological, emotional and financial effects of the crime on the victim.

Though they’re called victim specialists in Jefferson County, the role looks much the same. Whether it’s shuttling victims and witnesses to various court proceedings, providing them with water and tissues while they sit on Jeffco’s notoriously hard benches or offering victims the space to unpack their trauma, the county’s victim specialists are there.

Although there are victim advocates with the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office and volunteer advocates who go to the crime scene, Jeffco’s victim specialists typically meet with a victim within a week of the case being filed in the 1st Judicial District.

In Colorado, victims are guaranteed rights through the Victim Rights Act, which ensures that crime victims are treated with fairness, respect and dignity. Further, the act ensures that victims are informed of critical stages of the criminal process and that they may be present and heard at certain stages.

So, even if an offender is sentenced to prison, the victim advocate will continue to pay attention to notify the victim should their offender get out on parole or make an appeal or attempt to get off the sex-offender registry.

“They’re critical,” said District Attorney Pete Weir, noting victims and witnesses are swept into the judicial system through no fault of their own.

“Having a compassionate, empathetic, knowledgeable individual there to help guide (victims) through the process is essential,” he added.

Indeed, for those in a similar situation as she was, Turner recommends “to just kind of trust the process.”

“You know, it is really intrusive and really, really hard. And sometimes it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, but you just gotta kind of hang in there and keep on keeping on. And trust the people who are on your side,” she added.

Learning to compartmentalize

The experience can undoubtedly be harrowing for the victims, but it can take a toll on the advocates as well. They learn to compartmentalize, and they, too, must find ways to process.

For Holsteen, it’s through art. She has a studio near the Capitol and often finds herself using art to step away from her work. Likewise, Linda Smith, Holsteen’s counterpart in the special victims unit, uses faith and family as her release.

Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to leave the day behind.

“Sometimes, there’s days that you don’t. Like I drive 470, and there’s days I get in my car, and I just cry and cry and cry,” Smith said.

Giving victims their voice back

When a person experiences crime, whether it be sexual assault, domestic violence, elder abuse or any of the many other forms of violent crime, that person’s life will be forever changed.

For Holsteen and Smith, it’s about giving them their power and voice back. They frequently stay in touch with those they’ve helped, and there is no feeling like witnessing the fortitude of the human spirit.

It’s not all stories of hope and healing; Holsteen and Smith have been to their fair share of funerals. But they agree the stories of renewal far outnumber those of loss.

“We see the worst of humanity for sure. But we also see the best of humanity,” Holsteen said. “We see the resilience and hope and healing. … You know, the human species is very resilient.”

WANT TO GO?
In celebration of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the 26th annual Courage Walk will be hosted Saturday, April 13, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Jeffco Courts and Administration Building in Golden.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.