Court-based advocates guide crime victims through 'lowest point of their life'

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Victim Services Advocate Stephanie Barber strides briskly between her office and courtrooms on New London's historic Huntington Street on any given weekday, somehow making more noise than much larger people.

She also makes herself heard when advocating for crime victims during closed-door plea bargaining sessions.

Barber, 40, has spent her entire career helping crime victims recover to the greatest extent possible. She joined the Judicial Branch's Office of Victim Services four years ago after working for 12 years with the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

She is working with several families who lost loved ones to murder, including the survivors of three members of the Lindquist family who were killed in a shockingly violent series of crimes in Griswold in December 2017. She also advocates for victims of sexual assault, robbery and other major crimes. 

"Something horrible has happened to them or someone they love, and that's what brings them here to us," Barber said during a recent interview at the courthouse. "We just want to make the process less traumatizing, not additionally traumatizing, and make sure they receive everything they're entitled to."

For the past 40 years, Connecticut has provided services to ensure that victims' voices are heard in state courtrooms and they are compensated for their losses. The Office of Victim Services, which is part of the state Judicial Branch, celebrated its 40th anniversary this past week and announced it soon would be releasing a series of videos for victims.

Victims of crime, who often feel as if the people accused of hurting them or their loved one have all the rights when it comes to court proceedings, say the services of the advocates are invaluable.

John Aberg of Lisbon, whose grandson Andrew Michael Slyter was murdered in Old Lyme in 2007, is featured in the soon-to-be released videos, which are designed to familiarize clients with the process.

"When violent crime happens, people are thrown into turmoil, shocked," Aberg says, in part, in one of the videos. "They can't concentrate on what they read or hear. It's hard to get out of bed or face another day. In our grandson Andy's case, the court-based advocates were with us every step of the way, from arraignment to sentencing."

Ready with boxes of tissues and reassuring pats on the back, Barber and three other court-based victim advocates in the New London Judicial District stand with crime victims and their families during difficult court proceedings. The victim advocates explain the process to people who often have never stepped into a criminal courtroom and help their clients secure financial compensation for crime-related expenses such as counseling, medical bills and funeral costs. 

"The victims' advocates serve a vital role in the court process," said Judge Hillary B. Strackbein, chief administrative judge in the New London Judicial District. "They navigate the extremely difficult cases in such a professional manner, I cannot imagine the system working properly without them. I rely on their advice because they are the closest to the victims and can relay the positions of the victims to the court. Victims have constitutional rights and the victim advocates protect those rights."

Barber and Victim Services Advocate LeeAnn Vertefeuille work at the Huntington Street courthouse with victims of major crimes, including murder and sexual assault, and with men and women seeking civil protection orders against unrelated people who pose a threat.

Vertefeuille, 34, brought four years of community-based victim advocacy experiences to her position with the Judicial Branch in 2015. She worked until recently at the Geographical Area 10 courthouse on Broad Street in New London, where she earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for victims of drunken drivers.  

"As a whole, when someone experiences trauma and grief, they feel very powerless," Vertefeuille said. "As advocates, we can help restore some power and control back to the victim through education, information and advocacy. We provide the services and help them navigate through a very foreign system at the lowest point of their life."

Prosecutor David J. Smith said Vertefeuille goes above and beyond in terms of treating her clients with respect and advocating for their wishes before the court and with prosecutors.

"I have to say, there have been times when she has taken a stance much more pronounced than what I thought the case warranted," Smith said. "She advocated strongly towards what she felt was in the best interest of the victims, even if it wasn't necessarily what the prosecutor or the judges might feel."

Johanna Krebs, 38, held a variety of positions at Connecticut's chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for 13 years, before she was hired in December to replace Vertefeuille as victim services advocate at GA10.

"During my time at MADD, I did direct victim services, and it was one of the pieces I enjoyed tremendously," Krebs said. "Ensuring that people who have been impacted by someone else's actions are heard is tremendous."

Criminal defendants have the right to face their accuser in court, and sometimes victims have to relive their traumatic experiences and face aggressive cross-examination by defense lawyers, all while being stared at by the offender in a courtroom full of strangers.

Corene Leone, 57, victim services advocate at the Geographical Area 21 courthouse in Norwich has represented thousands of clients since joining the Judicial Branch in 2006. She brought 11 years of experience as a family violence victim advocate to the position.

This past week, she sat with the family who lost their son in a drunken driving crash while a woman pleaded guilty to the crime. She is helping the family prepare for the upcoming sentencing.

"I would like to think that a crime victim interaction with me made his/her experience better than if they did not have the services of an Office of Victim Services Advocate," Leone said in an email. "I am very fortunate to have a unique job in the community that I reside in that allows me to make a difference in someone's life every day."

The Office of Victim Services also is active outside of courthouses. Since 2010, the office has overseen a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFE) Program in which certified nurses and doctors conduct forensic examinations of rape victims and specially trained victim advocates provide emotional support, information and referrals.

The office also provides an automated service, called the Connecticut Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification System, or SAVIN, to help victims and others keep track of activity in criminal cases.

A video recording of the Jan. 4 state Office of Victim Services' 40th anniversary celebration at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford is available at bit.ly/CTVSanniversary.

k.florin@theday.com

By the numbers

The Judicial Branch's Office of Victim Services says the following statistics illustrate the importance of their work over the past four decades:

- Approximately 40,000 compensation applications have been received.

- Approximately $84 million in victim compensation has been awarded.

- Approximately 155,000 victims received support and advocacy during the criminal justice process.

- Since July 2017, $134 million was awarded to nonprofit agencies to provide direct services to crime victims.

- The Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners Program launched in 2010, with more than 1,500 responses to participating hospitals.

- The Connecticut Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification System has had approximately 90,000 registrations for notification and provided 650,000 notifications since launching in 2009.

For more information, contact the Judicial Branch's External Affairs Division at (860) 757-2270.

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