by Martha Smith
To emphasize National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the Jackson County District Attorney’s (JCDA) Victim Service Officer (VSO) Sheila Morris, recently reached out to The Clarion to raise awareness and talk about what a VSO is and what they do every day for victims of crime. Did you know that through a grant, the entire state of Alabama has a VSO stationed in each District Attorney’s office, sitting at the ready to assist any victim of any crime through the entire criminal prosecution process? When an arrest is made, an indictment is rendered, a plea is entered, Morris is there, sending out letters and making calls, setting up meetings, keeping the victim(s) abreast of what is happening with their case. By explaining the options and next steps to the victim, Morris can then find out what they would like to do, and how involved they would like to be.
District Attorney Jason Pierce stated, “Having a dedicated VSO has redefined the services, communications and attention that our Jackson County victims receive. Shortly after an arrest is made in a case, Morris is reaching out to the victim, letting them know what their rights are and establishing for them that she will be their contact throughout the process. She keeps them apprised of the status of the case as it progresses through the system and sets up meetings with the victims and attorneys as needed, whether by telephone, Facetime, Zoom or in person. Often victims will not know how to appropriately assert their potential restitution in the cases, and Morris will walk them through the process, as well as connecting them with other counselors or advocates, depending on the situation. Knowing that Morris is in communication with the victim allows the attorneys to focus on the legal and technical aspects of the case more, hopefully insuring a better outcome for the victim.”
This year’s theme for Crime Victims’ Rights Week is “Support Victims. Build Trust. Engage Communities.”
“I support victims by guiding them through the judicial process from the beginning to the end, keep them informed as to the status of their case and act as a liaison between the victims and law enforcement. I am always available to answer questions, attend court setting and interviews with them and refer them to any other resource they may need,” Morris stated. “The VSO builds trust with the victim, and trust requires total honesty. We are very up-front about the judicial process and what the victims can expect going through the process. They have been through a traumatic event, and we want them to know that while we may not be able to make them completely whole again, we will always be honest and work as hard as we can to try to provide them with some sense of peace at the conclusion of the judicial process. We engage the community by making them aware of the existence of the VSO and other victim-related services through publications like these. We work closely with other victim-related agencies in the community to provide a network of services for our victims.”
Some of those agencies include Crisis Services of North Alabama (CSNA), the Jackson County Children’s Advocacy Center (JCCAC) and the HERO Courtroom Facility Dog Program.
JCCAC Director and Forensic Interviewer Cheryl Long stated, “All of these programs work together to ensure that a child’s physical and emotional needs are met during their traumatic experience. The CSNA will conduct a medical exam if needed when a report of severe physical or sexual abuse is made. The CAC will then conduct a forensic interview with the child to tell about their traumatic experience in their own words. This can be very emotional for a child and having a trained support dog from the HERO program helps that child to feel more comfortable. After the abuse is disclosed, the VSO follows the child’s case through the court process, along with the CAC’s Family Advocate, to make sure that the child has support and is made to feel as comfortable as possible throughout the traumatic event. If needed, therapy is provided to the child throughout this process by the CAC, as well.”
Together, this network, the VSO, CSNA, the CAC and HERO provide a safety net to catch the victim and get them the resources they need, at no cost to them. Each one of these essential programs exists on a grant that must be renewed, with some relying on fundraising to stay operational.
Why do we need these, and why are they so important to have? Recently, I sat down with a child victim of abuse. For the sake of her privacy, she will be referred to as Jane. When Jane was nine years old, her father began abusing her sexually. The abuse continued until Jane was 13.
Many can read this and wonder why it took Jane so long to ask for help outside of her home, but they’re forgetting the family dynamics for a child who was the mother figure to her two younger siblings. To say Jane’s mother was negligent is putting it lightly.
“I never felt loved by my mother. Not ever. She would run off for days, and we didn’t know where she was, who she was with or when she was coming back. She never cared about any of us. My father was so hard on her when she came back. He was awful to her. He would beat her so bad. I saw her lying in a puddle of blood, and I remember thinking she was dead.”
Jane, even younger than the age of nine, before the abuse began, actually felt responsible for her brothers, stepping in to fill the gap her mother left empty, but she remembers when she had a doting father.
“He loved us and was so good to us. He took care of us. Then, it was like he just changed.”
But children, resilient in their nature, will find love where they can, and Jane, the eldest, filled the gap in her siblings’ lives as best she could by taking care of them each day and night, thereby gifting herself with their love in the process.
For the next four years, each time the abuse occurred, Jane did what she’d always done, and she thought of her younger brothers. By now she was old enough to have an inkling of how the system works, and she feared the resentment and alienation of her brothers – the only form of true love she ever knew – enough to maintain her silence.
What if she broke up the family, and they hated her? Worse, what if it really hurt them? Would they ever forgive her? Would they send each of them to different foster care? Would they ever see each other again? Jane’s life was broken down to one day at a time, each day became harder to bear, until one night, Jane was held down in the dark, as usual, by her mother and assaulted by her father for the last time.
She went to a family member and told them everything. They immediately called the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, and a report was filed. Arrests were made, and Jane’s worst fear was confirmed when the children were split up and placed in foster care, but the children kept in regular contact with each other and remained close.
“It was hard because we had no one. And when you’re going through the abuse, you feel like you’re the only one. I felt like I was alone, and I was so afraid, because they threatened me with death if I ever told. I remember when my parents were arrested, my grandfather called me and wanted to know why I was doing this. My grandparents took my mother’s side and said she couldn’t help it because she was being abused herself, and she was afraid. I told them that wasn’t true, because she was in my room every night, holding me down in the dark.”
Jane’s parents admitted their guilt, were sentenced and are still in prison to this day.
Jane and her brothers were taken once or twice a month, separately, to the Marshall County Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC). At the time, there was no CAC in Jackson County, and she remembers missing a lot of school because of the long commutes.
“I think we would have been much more comfortable with a CAC in our own town. Somewhere familiar and close by would have been wonderful, but they were still amazing there in Marshall County. I had to keep a journal, and I think that helped me a lot. I had to write in it every day, my feelings, my thoughts.”
The free therapy offered to Jane at the CAC lasted from the time she was 13 until she graduated high school at the age of 18.
“I think if I hadn’t received therapy, I would be a very bitter, angry person today. It’s definitely helped me, and I think it gives you a different outlook on life and to have hope.”
Jane also remembers how afraid she was, and she was so thankful she didn’t have to testify in court, but she imagines what it’s like for a child or adult victim who finds themselves on the witness stand, and she’s thankful for everything available to them now.
“I remember, I wasn’t an adult, and I felt like the people in authority were going to listen to my parents because they were adults, and I was a child. I never felt anyone would listen to me and believe me. Whereas now, I think with all of the support they have, I think your voice is heard now, and there is somebody there for you. From DHR to the court system, they did hear me. I think it’s wonderful victims have all this support now. There is somebody there for them, and they will be heard.”
Jane also addressed the deficiency in therapy for all in Alabama. Later, she learned her father had been abused, and that it was rampant in his family, but he was told not to talk about it. Referring to the old saying, “Hurt people hurt people,” Jane believes if there was more access to programs and resources like these, the abusive cycle could be stopped in its tracks.
“We hear about the jails being overcrowded. A lot of those people incarcerated are hurt, and a lot of that stems from their childhood. Why not invest in children who have been abused and put all our effort back into them, so they don’t repeat the cycle? We should put our resources toward healing. I always think back, if I hadn’t told. If I hadn’t got out when I did, where would I be? Probably in jail.”
Like Morris the VSO, Teresia Smith and Christina Hays at CSNA, Tamara Martin at the HERO Dog Program and Cheryl Long at the CAC, Jane wants you to know there are so many people waiting to help you. That they get up, every day, and they come to work, and helping people like you is their passion.
“You’re not going to be alone if you take that step – that leap of faith. You’re not going to be by yourself. Your life is going to be so much better, and you owe it to yourself and to your future: your children, your spouse, your family.”
I asked VSO Morris what would happen if I walked in off the street, into her office, needing help.
She stated, “I’ll say, come on. Let’s go.”
This article is for you – each one of you who were victimized while at your most vulnerable. For those of you who suffered at the hands and whims of those you trusted – those who said they loved you and should have protected you. For those of you who bore this for years and still bear the physical and mental scars today. For you, who sat alone in a courtroom. For you, rushing home from your job to get dinner on the table, dreading the moment they walk in the door. You, packing a bag for yourself and each of your children and hiding it in case you need to run at a moment’s notice. You, who had your voice taken away from you. You, who were told to never talk about family business. You, hiding behind your bravado for the outside world, carrying the weight of your reality at home. For you, reading this right now, too afraid to make that first call or that first step. For all of you, these people, these resources, this story and this week, is for you. Make the call.
• Sheila Morris/Victim Service Officer at Jackson County District Attorney’s Office: 256.574.9240
• Teresia Smith/Sexual Assault/Crisis Services of North Alabama: 256.574.5826
• Christina Hays/Domestic Violence/Crisis Services of North Alabama: 256.574.5826
• Cheryl Long/Jackson County Children’s Advocacy Center: 256.259.1603
• Jackson County Sheriff’s Office: 256.574.2610
• Scottsboro Police Department: 256.574.3333
• Jackson County DHR: 256.575.6000