‘Facing the system’: Victim witness advocate caseloads soar as severity of domestic violence rises during COVID pandemic

For most things in life, if you want to see who’s running the show, a peek behind the curtains will reveal who’s working to make sure things happen.

It’s no different in court. The judge, prosecutors, and lawyers are all front and center, but there’s a cast of characters working behind the scenes to make sure the show goes on.

One group in particular works tirelessly to ensure that victims and witnesses of crime know their rights throughout the criminal justice process: Victim and Witness Advocates. They say they are overworked, underpaid and one of the most important parts of the criminal justice process.

District attorneys’ offices across the state are seeing caseloads from victim witness advocates grow at a rapid rate as courts reopen to catch up with pending trials and hearings after courthouses were closed by COVID.

One of the primary roles of victim witness advocates is to help minimize the trauma of victims and witnesses as they navigate the criminal justice system – a task that at various times over the past two years , halted due to COVID-19 closure. down courthouses across the state.

This means that communication with victims – many of whom are victims of domestic violence – has fallen silent in times of crisis in many cases. And now that courthouses have reopened, lawyers have found themselves catching up with the surge in cases.

In Worcester, attorneys working for the district attorney’s office have seen their caseloads increase by 71%, the attorney’s office said.

In February, the total number of reported cases for 2022 had reached 2,191, a sharp increase from the 1,279 cases reported in 2019.

The significant increase in cases is primarily due to the COVID-19 outbreak that shuttered state courts for months at the start of the pandemic in 2020, the attorney’s office said. Courts closed again in early January 2022 when all jury trials were suspended until the end of the month.

“With COVID, what we’re seeing exacerbated is the anxiety, the depression, the issues that come with being a lawyer,” Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early, Jr. said.

And the time between when a victim reports an abuser and the court process is when survivors are most at risk, said Paige Bik, director of domestic violence services at the YWCA of Central Massachusetts.

“This is the most dangerous time for a survivor of domestic violence,” Bik said. “For this to be prolonged, it only increases the lethality of our survivors.”

Under the Massachusetts Victims Bill of Rights, all victims and witnesses of a crime must be informed, present, and heard at important stages of the legal process regarding the related incident.

Specifically, the services mandated by the bill of rights include notification of all court dates, appearances, and the final disposition of the case. It also requires district attorneys’ offices to provide a secure holding area during court proceedings, assistance in preparing a victim impact statement, information and assistance regarding restitution. All of these services are part of the duties of a victim-witness advocate.

“They are very dedicated,” said Margaret Rwaramba, head of victim witness advocates at the Worcester prosecutor’s office. “But they are exhausted.”

Tara Huard, Paige Bik and Margaret Rwaramba discuss the work of victim witness advocates at the Worcester District Attorney’s Office. (Picture: Worcester Attorney’s Office)

One of 21 attorneys in the Worcester district attorney’s office currently has more than 400 cases, the district attorney’s office said. And the workloads aren’t getting any easier.

“We’re doing even more work with not much at the moment,” she said.

In Berkshire County, the number of indicted felony cases was already on the rise, jumping 65% since 2019, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said.

“And then if you look at the period between March 10, 2020 and March 1, 2022, it’s up 79%,” Harrington said.

To help cope with the surge in cases, the Berkshire DA office has hired three new staff members for its advocacy program.

During periods of lockdown, victims waited longer before seeking help and endured higher levels of violence before seeking help, Harrington said.

In general, COVID has made life even more dangerous and unsettling for victims.

“The lives of victims have been put on hold – as have those of those charged – and the workload for prosecutors and victim witness advocates has increased,” said Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden. “At the same time, the needs of many members of the community we serve have been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic. For some victims and survivors, their trauma has been compounded by the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, social isolation and other effects of the pandemic. Our victim witness advocates have responded to these needs with trauma-informed practices, tireless advocacy and the highest level of professionalism.

The Ministry of Public Health has increased funding for some services, including emergency placement, where victims are placed in short-term housing, but placements are not permanent.

“And so, we’re doing these kinds of emergency dressings, but it’s just not sustainable for survivors to be able to really thrive and prosper with their families and be safe,” Bik said. “So for me, I think that’s one of the biggest things that COVID has brought.”

Worcester is fortunate to have several organizations and services, like the YWCA, that work with victims and provide rehabilitation services, especially to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

The YWCA has several community initiatives and partnerships to support victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, including Daybreak, Coordinated Community Response Network, Employers Against Domestic Violence, Intervention Network: Worcester, among others.

Tara Huard, community services supervisor at the YWCA of Central Mass., says the severity of abuse suffered by victims has also increased during COVID.

“We used to hear a lot about domestic violence, but lately it seems the perpetrators of violence are taking it to a whole new level,” Huard said.

Specifically, Huard said he saw more incidents of strangulation.

Huard cited data from Jane Doe Inc. that found Worcester County ranked second in the state in domestic homicide incidents with three. Suffolk County was first with four total incidents involving homicides. A MassLive review of 407 total domestic violence homicide incidents statewide from 2003 to 2001 shows Worcester County leading the way, with 69 total incidents. Middlesex are second with 63 and Suffolk and Essex tied for third with 56 each.

“And that made us start talking about, ‘Okay, what else do we need to do within our limited capacity and the limited capacity of the DA, because that’s really beyond even each of us. It’s all a system problem,” Huard said.

COVID and court closures have also affected probate issues and family and youth issues, Huard noted.

“We have some who, they may have filed for divorce or an emergency motion for custody on the basis that they are terrified for themselves or their children and they are just sitting in limbo,” said Huard said. “How do you keep your kids safe when you have no way to protect them? »

One of the main areas of focus of the Worcester Attorney’s Office now is prevention, particularly the prevention of domestic violence. Part of that prevention starts with getting the message out in schools and teaching students about trauma, Early said.

“Because we know that if we fail to deal with the trauma, 40 to 60% of these children are going to be involved in the criminal justice system, 40 to 60% of these children are going to do the same behaviors that they witness. So we have to deal with that and it’s at the level of prevention.

Acknowledging the work done by his office, Early said there is still a lot of work to do, especially in terms of prevention.

“We put out the fires here and take care of the system,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a bandage. Sometimes it’s surgery, but we’re doing everything we can to help these families.

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