My upcoming book, Rest in Peace, is the third installment in my Ellis Springs Series and will follow the story of Grace Werner, a county victim/witness advocate. I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking, “A what?” Grace is a victim/witness advocate. Those familiar with this field, most likely, learned about it out of necessity. Using this description from www.victimsofcrime.org :
“Victim advocates are professionals trained to support victims of crime. Advocates offer victims information, emotional support, and help finding resources and filling out paperwork. Sometimes, advocates go to court with victims. Advocates may also contact organizations, such as criminal justice or social service agencies, to get help or information for victims. Some advocates staff crisis hotlines, run support groups, or provide in-person counseling. Victim advocates may also be called victim service providers, victim/witness coordinators, or victim/witness specialists.”
A victim/witness advocate is the unsung hero behind the scenes. Their sole existence is for the victim and seeing the victim through the excruciatingly long process of the criminal justice system. The wheels of justice turn slowly, remember? An advocate steps in to bridge the gap between incident and conviction.
I met with Dani Gorman, Victim Witness Coordinator from Bradford County, Pennsylvania, for my latest character research. While my book is a work of fiction (and I will use creative license to the hilt,) it is my desire to provide an accurate portrayal of a victim/witness advocate through my protagonist, Grace Werner. It gives me an opportunity to put a spotlight on this very noble career and make people aware of its existence. After meeting with Dani, let me just say, I have a new superhero to idolize. Forget about Wonder Woman, Storm, or even Natasha Romanoff. Dani is a true superhero—protector, companion, coach, and purveyor of justice. Her superpowers include, but are not limited to, compassion, integrity, tenacity, ingenuity and, maybe, a tad bit of well-placed intimidation where appropriate.
|Hero worship makes it sound like I'm in elementary school.|
If I was, the drawing I'd make in class would look something like this.
When asked to describe her job and how she protects her clients while waiting for justice to be served, Dani said, “I have to balance the fence between holding hands (the victim’s) and kicking ass (those who threaten her client.)”
Her job, serving the victim, is serious business and her duties, during the criminal process, involve court accompaniment, courtroom orientation, tours of the courtroom for children, court testimony preparation, supportive counseling, and notifications. She also offers assistance with Victim Impact Statements, claims for restitution, filing for the Victim Compensation Assistance Program and enrollment in the Inmate Status Notification Program. Victim/witness advocates are a system-based program. In Bradford County, there is only one advocate to serve the entire county. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “stretched thin.” Dani’s office, within the DA’s office, handles, on average, 1,000 cases a year; six to eight are homicides and eight to ten are violent crimes which include domestic abuse, sexual assault, etc. Forty to fifty percent of her cases involve DUI’s. While she can be brought in at the point of a preliminary hearing, most of the time she doesn’t see the victim until their case has already been processed through one of the four magistrates within Bradford County. Just one case can have as many as fifteen contact clients. Her position is grant-funded through the state and she reports to the Bradford County Commissioners through their Policy Board. Some counties in Pennsylvania have larger operating budgets within their district attorney’s office, and can support their own program, in which case, the advocate would serve at the pleasure of the district attorney.
At this point in our conversation, I switched gears. In order for me to write Grace in an authentic manner, I needed to get personal with Dani. I asked her how she mentally coped while working through particularly difficult cases. She told me those cases just pushed her harder to bring justice for the victim and it drove her to reach that goal. I asked if she took the baggage of a hard day home with her. The answer was yes. She said the key was not to dwell on it negatively, but to use it in a positive manner to build herself up for the next hurdle. The victims she serves, she reminded me, are the ones with the hardest challenges. They will be the ones with lasting effects. She will do everything in her power to help prepare each victim and coordinate services for them so they can reach the closure they need within the legal system. I asked her if she was ever scared. She answered, “Not inside the courthouse. They take care of us.” Sheriff’s deputies are always on scene, manning the security screenings, stepping in when tensions flare, and providing escorts to and from the building. All she needs to do, in most situations, is convey a look or a gesture, and deputies come out of the woodwork. Dani has the upmost respect for them. She’s had experience being around law enforcement officers her entire life. Her father is retired from the local police force. Following in the family tradition of public servant, Dani studied Criminal Justice at Marywood University and served as a probation officer before taking her current position. Her prior job gave her experience working in direct contact with those convicted. That experience gave her a backbone. She doesn’t intimidate easily. All of this is beneficial to the victims in her care.
|Dani Gorman - Victim/Witness Coordinator of Bradford County, Pennsylvania|
As our time spent talking over coffees drew to a close, Dani spoke with grateful admiration for the network of professionals in her everyday life. She made sure to recognize their contributions to the criminal justice system. Members from the Abuse and Rape Crisis Center of Towanda, a community-based service that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, the Bradford County Sheriff’s Office, Children and Youth Services, and the Bradford County District Attorney’s Office, as well as other departments and law enforcement agencies, both local and state, each play an integral role in ensuring justice is served for the victims they represent. Dani also praised her fellow members from the National Organization for Victim Assistance and how she and other members collaborate, on a regular basis, to provide even better services to those in need. She stressed that it takes teamwork to make the system successful. NOVA members are a great sounding board of support for each other.
Leaving the café and walking to my car, I thought about the impression Dani made on me. I wasn’t being flippant earlier about the superhero thing. I have to stress that fact. Dani, regular citizen, mother, and wife, is friendly and engaging. We hit it off and about ten minutes into my interview, I wanted to invite her to join my book club! But just under that friendly exterior lies the seasoned victim/witness coordinator of Bradford County. The lioness. And God help the defendant who tries to mess with one of the victims in her care.