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.

Clearly, that sense of fairness is still with Goodman-Brown today. Though the 47-year-old is barely five feet tall, she exudes a quiet determination. And when she speaks about the plight of crime victims, she does so with both passion and compassion. "They come one at a time, alone, disenfranchised. Sometimes they don't even have the energy to fill out a form," she says. But although some crime victims and survivors find the energy to speak out for themselves, the Patty Wetterlings and Pam Poiriers are rare, she adds. "There are hundreds more crime victims behind them who are silent, who need for a time to have someone speak on their behalf. To take the reins and help them navigate through the criminal justice system."

During her decade as ombudsman, Goodman-Brown has changed the scope of the office. Prior to her appointment, the agency was more of a center for victims' services, with staff members focused on helping victims talk about what had happened to them or write their victim-impact statements. There were many new victims'-rights laws on the books, but compliance with them was spotty, and Goodman-Brown wanted to shift her staff's focus to educating victims about the laws and making sure officials adhered to them. Instead of automatically taking the side of victims, the ombudsman now examines complaints to see if they are justified; if they aren't, she explains why.

The office, located in St. Paul's Bandana Square, is small: Goodman-Brown and a staff of six. (Most of last year's $400,000 budget went to payroll, including the ombudsman's $69,000 salary.) But the agency serves about 2,000 victims each year. The staff handles most cases by phone, quickly and quietly, passing along information or making referrals. Perhaps ten percent of the cases are "informal investigations," in which a staff member talks with local police or prosecutors to resolve a problem. Comparatively few cases result in long-term investigations and lengthy reports, such as Holly Zschokke's.

While that investigation was well publicized, many of the ombudsman's findings carry a low profile, important only to the victims and their families. In one recent case, a Bloomington woman whose 14-year-old daughter was raped by a 27-year-old step-cousin says the ombudsman's office served as a liaison with investigators in the small county where the rape occurred. Though the investigation had been dragging along, after the ombudsman intervened, authorities located the offender and summoned him to Minnesota from another state; he has since been convicted of criminal sexual conduct. In another case, a Duluth woman wondered why no charges had been brought against a suspect who allegedly assaulted her brother, causing him serious brain damage. The woman turned to the ombudsman, who reviewed the case and wrote a letter to the prosecutor stating that actions by the county attorney created suspicion that there might be a conflict of interest in the handling of the matter. Though Goodman-Brown's letter did not alter the outcome of the case, the victim's sister says it was a great relief that the ombudsman listened to her concerns and agreed with her.

Similarly, many of the changes the ombudsman's office has instigated have passed under the public radar. Those changes include new policies in police departments statewide detailing how and when crime victims should be informed of their rights. In addition, the ombudsman has sponsored training for law-enforcement agencies to understand the complex legal issues of crimes such as domestic abuse, child abuse, and violations of restraining orders. Goodman-Brown also points to one case in rural Minnesota, in which police deemed a man's death a car accident, when in fact he had been shot in the head while driving. Eventually, after the man's wife went through the ordeal of exhuming the body for further examination, the killer was captured. After looking into the case, Goodman-Brown helped the local sheriff's department craft a new policy that calls for experienced homicide investigators to attend to death scenes when there are no witnesses.

These changes may seem incremental, but for crime victims and their families, they have been tremendous. Still, Goodman-Brown sees much room for improvement. Her office could do more proactive work to protect victims' rights, she says, instead of only investigating violations--especially in smaller jurisdictions that don't have their own victims'-assistance programs. To critics who have pointed out that the agency has no punitive power--it can't apply sanctions or invoke fines--Goodman-Brown replies that for the most part that isn't a problem, because police and prosecutors don't usually try to willfully violate victims' rights.

One thing the ombudsman's office has always had going for it has been its independence, and Goodman-Brown fears that shifting the duties to the state Department of Public Safety will defeat her agency's purpose. "Putting this office, or the responsibilities of this office, into the Department of Public Safety is akin to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop," she charges.

Indeed, the Department of Public Safety is part of the government's law-enforcement arm; its divisions include the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the State Patrol. (A division called the Minnesota Center for Crime Victim Services will assume the former duties of the ombudsman's office; the state commissioner of public safety will take over the responsibilities of the ombudsman.) "Crime victims need more service," Goodman-Brown says. "Not more bureaucracy, not more roadblocks.

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