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.

"This is the beauty of the ombudsman concept," she goes on. "We're coming in as an objective force. We look at the overall problem and discover a better solution. This was the first office in the nation created to enforce compliance with victims' rights. Minnesota has the best thing going in the nation, and we're messing with it."

 

It could be an unfortunate coincidence, a lapse in judgment, an ordinary situation that escalates out of control. Theft, assault, murder--no one ever plans to be a crime victim. "The amazing part about crime is that people who are bumped into or knocked to the ground or their purse is snatched--these things for many people have a traumatic, lifelong effect," explains Lucy Banks, executive director of the Minnesota General Crime Victim Coalition, an umbrella organization serving groups that aid victims of crimes other than sexual assault or domestic abuse (which have their own coalitions). "You don't have to be the parent of a murdered child. You just have to be violated in some way. Your whole life changes. Some people don't get by that."

Craig La Rotonda

Making sure law-enforcement agencies uphold the rights of crime victims, Goodman-Brown contends, creates a stronger criminal-justice system: If crime victims feel respected, they'll be more likely to trust authorities and bring forth details that can bolster prosecutions. In an ideal world, she'd like to see her office granted more resources so it could be more proactive--and more visible, so that crime victims know where to turn.

For now, though, she's fighting for survival. Sympathetic lawmakers introduced legislation that would reinstate funding to the ombudsman's office, but the measure is one of many that got incorporated into a supplemental budget-balancing bill that has spent weeks in conference committee. (At press time, there was no word on any impending reprieve.) Even if something does materialize, some damage has already been done. Goodman-Brown's staff has dwindled to just herself and three others, as employees concerned about their job security have already transferred to other positions in state government. Barring a last-minute change, the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman will close June 30 and turn its files over to the Department of Public Safety.

National victims'-rights advocates share Goodman-Brown's frustration. "It would be a darn shame if the office were de-funded," offers Susan Howley, director of public policy at the National Center for Victims of Crime, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "A lot of states right now are looking at the problem of victims'-rights compliance, realizing that they need to create some sort of response if victims' rights are abused. A lot of people are looking at the Minnesota state ombudsman because it has worked so well for so many years.

"Victims' rights are fundamental rights," she goes on. "It's the right to be treated decently by the government in an area that deeply affects your personal interest." And whether a state appoints an ombudsman or creates some other watchdog for victims' rights, it's essential that the agency be independent, she asserts. "Think about the purposes that it serves: A victim just wants to know they're having someone unbiased evaluate the complaint. The placement of the office is important to that perception. A lot of times, victims want to know they're getting a straight answer. That's all they wanted."

Adds Tammie Larsen, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault: "It's important for the public to see there's someone watching and taking it seriously. The crime-victims ombudsman is the one place in the state where victims can go as a last chance if something doesn't work in the system. That's a tremendous loss. I worry deeply that this is going to create a state where victims don't have the options they have now. And they don't have enough options now."

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