Blame the Victims

Laura Goodman-Brown, Minnesota's crime-victims ombudsman, is about to become a victim herself. And she says it's a crime.

BEFORE IT HAPPENED, Holly Zschokke had never heard of Minnesota's Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman. But in February 1998 Zschokke's daughter, then 14 years old, was sexually assaulted by 15 to 20 men in a Minneapolis apartment. Despite being called to the scene to investigate a possible rape, the police failed to look into the allegations and instead ticketed Zschokke's daughter for being out past curfew. Hours later, after her daughter had told Zschokke what had happened, the distraught mother began calling the police to find out why they hadn't probed further. Eventually two assailants were caught and convicted, but the delay in starting the investigation allowed many of the men who had been in the apartment to disperse before they were identified.

Outraged, Zschokke (pronounced SHOCK-ee) wanted answers. But, she says, her demands for an examination of the Minneapolis Police Department's failure to act were ignored. Nearly a year after the assault, Zschokke learned about the ombudsman. "I had nowhere else to turn. I didn't know where to go," she says today. "They were very interested. Not only interested in the story and what happened, but in how to help my daughter and myself."

Ombudsman Laura Goodman-Brown and her staff of investigators knew how to talk to Zschokke, and, more important, to her daughter. They tried to understand what had happened during the assault, and then what had happened when police arrived. In a small way, Zschokke says, it seemed to help her daughter begin to heal from the experience. "They tried to get to the truth of the matter, and that really helped a lot," Zschokke says. "It was comforting to know that people believed her. There was a little change in her after that. She did start to get a little confidence back."

Zschokke was surprised at how helpful the ombudsman's office proved to be. "I didn't think much of it at first," she admits. "But I really liked the way they presented themselves to me and to her. It made me feel like a weight was taken off my shoulders."

As she speaks, it's as if the intervening years have evaporated. The tears come involuntarily. "I felt that I didn't have to worry anymore," she goes on, gently wiping her eyes. "This had been going on for a while. Nobody cared, nobody listened. I felt this relief that I wouldn't have to think about it all the time. They'd do some of the thinking for me."

In November of 1999, after an investigation that lasted nearly nine months, Goodman-Brown's office released a report on the MPD's handling of the assault, chastising the officers' failure to notice the signs of a sexual assault and finding that the police department's internal investigation into the matter had been inadequate.

The report recommended that the MPD institute training programs to help officers understand the dynamics of sexual assault; recognize and collect evidence of sexual assault; communicate with children, juveniles, and members of other cultures about sexual assaults; and understand police power and authority and its relationship to the community.

"Police officers are given powerful and virtually exclusive authority in the community," the report reads in part. "Along with that authority comes professional responsibility. If the officers missed the 'red

flags' in this situation, they should have simply stated they missed the flags. Instead, it appears that they were forced to continue a charade through the trial process and are doomed to make the same mistakes again in the field because the Department exonerated them and, thereby, failed to correct the officer's [sic] mistakes."

The way Holly Zschokke sees it, without the ombudsman's investigation and report, these problems may never have come to light. "I wasn't looking for any promises," she says. "I felt like the police--they think they're gods or something, so no one can touch them. I don't like that. The way my daughter was treated--that's just one person. Imagine all the other stories.

"I would feel really bad if they got rid of the ombudsman," Zschokke concludes. "Who are these victims going to turn to?"

 

On February 13 of this year, Laura Goodman-Brown sat at the capitol, waiting for Maple Grove Rep. Rich Stanek, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Finance Committee, to unveil his proposed budget. There had been much discussion about the state's $2 billion deficit, and Goodman-Brown, along with dozens of other people representing agencies whose funding is allotted by the committee, was anxious to see what was in store.

A spreadsheet was passed around, and Goodman-Brown's eyes quickly scanned the columns. It was bad news: Her office, along with its $400,000 annual budget, was to be eliminated entirely, its responsibilities transferred to the Department of Public Safety.

"It was, I guess, not a complete surprise," Goodman-Brown says now. "But I was irritated: Here we go again." Two years ago Stanek had tried to cut her budget by $50,000, and last year, even before the state's major budget woes were revealed, his committee had attempted to slash the ombudsman's office by two-thirds. That measure passed in the House before it lost momentum and eventually faded away. But this year the momentum was there. The Judiciary Finance Committee's proposal to do away with the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman became part of the budget bill that passed, was vetoed by the governor, and then became law when legislators overrode the veto.

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