Ensuring rights in a Court of Honor

The definition of an advocate is “one who pleads the cause of another. One who defends, maintains or recommends a cause or proposal.”

It’s been 36 years since the first battered women’s shelter was opened in the United States. But the first sign of advocates pleading the rights of victims began as far back as 202 B.C. when women were awarded more freedoms, including property rights and the right to sue their husbands for unjustified beatings.

The war against domestic violence began then.

When a call for help comes in, it motivates a troop of community agencies working to combat domestic violence. Before an advocate walks through the door, the work of intervening for victims and families in crisis has begun. A 911 dispatcher assures the victim help is on the way. Officers are called to a scene, ready to help, ready to enforce the right to not be abused. Advocates arrive to further this response by determining what emergent needs are present and then swiftly engaging in their duties of advocating for a right to live free from violence. Child Protection workers ensure the children get the help they need so they can be kids, not pawns in a strategic assault against the victim.

The following days involve a slew of workers who have taken on the mission of responding to a crime of domestic violence — from prosecutors and judges, to child protection case workers and family advocates, to victim advocates.

One specific advocate has been assigned the task of upholding victims’ rights in the criminal justice system. The job of a court advocate is an invaluable piece of the complicated and overwhelming puzzle we call our judicial system. They are required to be many things to many people, but most importantly, to be the voice for victims in a system that has a reputation for “hanging them out to dry” instead of helping — images of “Law and Order” come to mind.

Victims’ rights are a newer concept in the United States, taking the assassination attempt on a president to initiate the process. In 1981, President Reagan was the target of violence, launching him and his case into the criminal justice system. He discovered quickly how defendants seemingly had more rights than the victims who are required to pull their lives together after a violent attack — a president included. With this, Reagan launched the 1982 President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime, which discovered the reality of the situation.

Additionally, the task force uncovered was how each of us, not just victims, are significantly affected by our nation’s crime problem. As noted in the Task Force’s Final Report, “Something insidious has happened in America: crime has made victims of us all. Awareness of its danger affects the way we think, where we live, where we go, what we buy, how we raise our children, and the quality of our lives as we age.”

Everyone, it seems, wants to reverse the epidemic of crime. However, the testimonies of the many victims point to a sad realization: The scales of justice have lost their balance.

As stated in the President’s Task Force Report, “The American criminal justice system is absolutely dependent on these victims to cooperate. Without the cooperation of victims and witnesses in reporting and testifying about crime, it is impossible in a free society to hold criminals accountable. When victims come forward to perform this vital service, however, they find little protection. They discover instead that they will be treated as appendages of a system appallingly out of balance. They learn that somewhere along the way the system has lost track of the simple truth that it is supposed to be fair and to protect those who obey the law, while punishing those who break it. Somewhere along the way, the system began to serve lawyers, judges, and defendants, treating the victim with institutionalized disinterest.”

Writing for the National Sheriff’s Association publication, former Assistant Attorney General Lois Height Harrington pointed out that victims who come forward to hold criminals accountable deserve, in return, support and fair treatment. The responding law enforcement and victim advocate plays a significant role in this. “As often the first to arrive on the scene of a crime, [the officer] is the initial source of protection for the victim. The manner on which [the officer and advocate] treats a victim at the time of the crime and afterwards affects not only [the victim’s] immediate and long-term ability to cope with the crime, it can determine his [or her] willingness to assist in prosecution.”

Therefore, in order to keep the scales of justice balanced with truth and fairness, the Archuleta County Court Advocacy Program observes the rights of victims and witnesses as guaranteed by the Colorado State Constitution, working tirelessly to ensure those rights are upheld and exercised.

The Archuleta County Victim Assistance Program (ACVAP) is a private, non-profit organization supporting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault through intervention, education and comprehensive victim services.