Sometimes its as simple as listening

by Margaret Schroeder

When Gina showed up on Dora Larson's doorstep, she didn't have a specific request. But Larson, who herself had been a victim of violent crime, knew what to do.

"I just rocked her and let her cry." Gina, 18, had been sexually assaulted as a child, and finally decided to come forward and tell about the crimes. Larson accompanied her to the state's attorney's office to investigate the possibility of criminal prosecution. She also went to court with Gina during the eventual civil proceedings. And she helped set the young woman up with a psychologist who specializes in dealing with children who have been sexually assaulted. But listening was the first step.

Larson knows that some things are frustrating and confusing, even on a good day. Trying to get information over the phone from a busy bureaucrat. Trying to understand the judicial system. But these difficulties can seem insurmountable to victims and their families in the aftermath of unspeakable crime, or in the face of threats from someone about to get out of prison.

And there are thousands of such victims. In 1997 alone the most recent figures available there were 104,799 violent crimes in Illinois, including everything from murder to ritual mutilation. There are resources, of course, but the people who need them most may never find them. The victims of crimes often are overlooked, turned away, misunderstood, misinformed or simply forgotten in the long chain of events that begins with a beating, a rape, a murder, and often ends with the perpetrator being sent right back into the community.

But an effort is underway to ensure that those who are hurt by violent crime in Illinois will be able to make it through the investigation, the prosecution and the rest of their lives with a minimum of confusion and frustration. A new eight-member Victim Services Advisory Board, appointed last summer, is beginning to recruit and train volunteers to get help to crime victims throughout the state.

And the driving force behind that board is Larson, who heads the Victim Services Unit within the state Department of Corrections. She says the unit, which was established nearly two years ago, plans to line up at least 400 volunteers in the northern, central and southern regions of the state. The volunteers will take on a range of assignments, including

Dora Larson

Dora Larson heads the Victims Services Unit in the Department of Corrections.

30 / January 1999 Illinois Issues

accompanying families to court, helping to find counseling, or just listening. And the board members, who get expenses only, are considering creating a trust fund with voluntary prison inmate contributions to further the work. This fiscal year, Larson's budget is $76,200, most of that from a federal grant. Those dollars enable her to cover the cost of one assistant and a toll-free hot line: 1-877-776-0755. So far, the new office has helped nearly 800 people.

Meanwhile, Larson spends her time traveling the state to give speeches and conduct seminars for law enforcement groups and students of criminal justice. She knows the subject well. Larson's 10-year-old daughter Vicki was kidnapped, raped and strangled 19 years ago. From that experience she reaches out to help others through a statewide parents' organization she launched and through the corrections department's new unit. Now she's helping to start a national organization for such units.

Larson says there are plenty of ways to help. Getting access to information is one. Barbara's experience is a case in point. "Barbara" the victims have requested that their names be changed had what seemed like a simple request. She heard that the man who had stabbed her 24 times was getting out of prison, and she wanted to know when he would be released and where he would be moving. She called the prison. She called her local state's attorney's office. But her phone calls led nowhere. "They didn't tell me anything," she says. "I went through months on the phone, crying my eyes out, and all they kept telling me is that he had his rights and I couldn't find anything out. It's unbelievable how I was treated." Barbara says when her attorney gave her the victim unit's number, she was finally able to get the answers she needed.

Even those who deal with the system regularly run into roadblocks. Jeannine Woods of Cairo, who works with the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is a member of the department's new board. She says it's hard even for domestic victims' advocates to get information about inmates. And, she says, sometimes those victims receive threatening letters from their abusers in prison. They may tell their victims they are about to be released and that they are going to come looking for them. The panicked victims, and their advocates at the coalition's center, are unable to find out any information about the prisoner's release, even with the threatening letters in hand.

"I want to ensure this information is disseminated to the front-line people who are working with victims," Woods says.

Another board member, Greg Sullivan of Springfield, understands the concerns of victims and law enforcement. The executive director of the Illinois Sheriff's Association, Sullivan has firsthand knowledge of both sides; his sister was murdered in 1995. "Even being involved in the business, there were a lot of things I wasn't aware of," he says. "When a victim walks into a courtroom, nine times out of 10 they don't have a clue as to what their rights are." He says lack of information about everything from what types of hearings will take place to whether the family should be present is aggravating. For example, he says, there are some hearings the family does not really need to attend. But it's important for them to be at others. Knowing which is which can make a difference. "I wanted to know, should I be there, or was it just one more time we didn't have to look this person in the face? For victims to have to sit in the courtroom and face this person, it's disheartening."

Sullivan says while victim advocates within the state's attorney's offices are helpful, they have a heavy workload and are often too busy to spend much time with individual

One of the biggest needs of crime victims is somebody who has time to listen and care.

victims or their families. He's hoping the board will help convince the corrections department, as well as state's attorneys, to create an automated victim notification system that would alert people when an inmate is up for a parole hearing, a transfer, an appeal or any other change of status. He believes such a system, in use in other states, would give victim advocates more time.

In fact, one of the biggest needs of crime victims is somebody who has time to listen and care. Sally says when her nephew murdered her best friend 15 years ago, she just wanted to put the experience behind her. But she found herself having to face her feelings all over again when she found out he was being released from prison. Fortunately, she found out about Larson and the Victim Services Unit. "She actually just saved me from going bezerky," Sally says. "I wasn't scared of [the murderer]. I was scared of what I might do. I had a gun, but Dora convinced me I didn't need a gun."

Those who have been through it describe a sense of isolation that can sometimes only be breached by someone who has been there. "When he violated parole and was running loose, [Larson] called me all the time with moral support," Sally says. "I wish I had known her a long time ago. I know there's a lot of people out there like me. You don't have anybody to talk to. You don't know which way to turn."

Margaret Schroeder is a free-lance writer who lives in Springfield. Her byline appears regularly in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Illinois Issues January 1999 / 31

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