Victims’ Rights Week

The Office for Victims of Crime has designated this week as National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

According to the office website, this year’s theme–Honoring Our Past, Creating Hope for the Future–celebrates the progress made by those before us as we look to a future of crime victim services that is even more inclusive, accessible, and trauma-informed.

Here in Warren County, services for victims of crime have evolved from a prosecution-based program to a community-based program aimed at enhancing those services, according to Terri Allison, executive director of A Safe Place.

A Safe Place provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. They offer victims multiple services including individual counseling, legal advocacy, and temporary shelter.

In 2000, A Safe Place took over the former Victim Witness Program, which was handled by the District Attorney’s office since its inception in Warren County in 1986, according to Allison. It is now known as the Crime Victims Program.

The Warren County Victim Witness Program was started by former District Attorney Richard A. Hernan, Jr. in 1986, according to Allison.

Hernan is still an assistant district attorney and has been in public service in Warren County since he was originally elected in 1978.

“We had it (Crime Victim Witness Program) until the late 2000s,” Allison said. “When District Attorney Rob Greene was elected in 2014 he asked that A Safe Place assume responsibility for it.”

Allison provided some history of the Victims Rights Movement.

“Back in the 1970s when the women’s’ rights (aka feminist) movement and the civil rights movement were advocating for equal rights and protections under the law, they were also challenging the criminal justice system to think about the role of a victim in criminal court proceedings,” Allison said. “This was around the same time that Pennsylvania enacted the First Protection from Abuse Act in the nation. Shelters for battered women were springing up in urban areas and rape crisis centers were starting to provide advocacy services to victims in the hospital.”

In 1982 the final report released through President Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on Victims of Crime stated: “the innocent victims of crime have been overlooked, their pleas for justice have gone unheeded, and their wounds — personal, emotional and financial — have gone unattended.” It also contained over 60 recommendations for victim service providers and included a recommendation for a victims’ rights amendment to the Constitution, Allison said.

Today’s Victims’ Rights Movement continues to advocate for legislation to add victims rights as an amendment to the Constitution so that victims whose rights are violated have some recourse. “It’s known as Marsy’s Law,” Allison said.

Most victim/witness offices have historically been District Attorney-based, according to Allison. She added that there has been a slow progression towards community-based victim service agencies housing these programs.

“The role of the District Attorney is to represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Allison said. “The role of the Crime Victims Program of A Safe Place is to advocate for the full rights under the Crime Victims Bill of Rights and provide the services for which they are entitled.”

Allison said that some funding issues may be enhanced by having services provided by A Safe Place.

“Unfortunately, over the years funding for these services has not grown along with the need for services,” she said. “A Safe Place has the infrastructure to support the Crime Victims Program when additional help is needed.”

“The eligible services have changed over the years and through the Rights and Services Act funding and the Victims of Juvenile Offenders funding, only procedural services are allowed,” she said. “This leaves out things such as crisis counseling, courtroom orientation and witness management during trials. Through other funding, A Safe Place can enhance the services we are providing to victims of crime in Warren County.

“In the very near future we are hoping to have our website up that will not only feature the domestic violence and sexual assault services we have provided in Warren/Forest Counties for over 30 years but also our services to all crime victims in Warren County,” she said.

For more information on the Crime Victims Program of A Safe Place, call (814) 728-3510 or (814) 728-3468.