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.

When it opened in 1986, the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman was one of the first of its kind in the nation. Since then it has served as a resource and model for other states and countries. Now Goodman-Brown believes the office itself has become a victim--the target of retaliation on the part of Rich Stanek, who, in his non-legislative career, works as an inspector with the Minneapolis Police Department.

"Stanek has been trying to shut us down for three years," Goodman-Brown says flatly. The budget deficit, she believes, was simply a convenient excuse to get rid of her office without having to go through the process of public hearings or any significant discussion of the work the ombudsman's office has done in its 16 years of existence.

The morning after Stanek announced the proposed budget cuts, Goodman-Brown was allowed to defend her office before the committee. But there was little room for debate, even among committee members. "There was not a lot of discussion," recalls Rep. Wes Skoglund, a Minneapolis DFLer who sits on the Judiciary Finance Committee. "We had become resigned to the fact that the chair was going to kill that office."

Moreover, because the budget bill was crafted in such a hurry, Skoglund says, it's possible that many legislators didn't even realize what they were cutting before it was too late: "To say every legislator knew that it was being cut simply isn't realistic," he concludes.

Stanek contends that the move was necessary during a year when he had to cut $40 million from the judiciary budgets he oversees. "That office's duties were transferred," he emphasizes. "Not eliminated or abolished, but transferred to the Department of Public Safety. I don't think the concept is bad. But some of it falls under duplicative services. We can do it better with less staff."

Stanek scoffs at the idea that eliminating the ombudsman's office had anything to do with its prior criticism of the Minneapolis Police Department: "The legislature made this decision. It wasn't Rich Stanek's decision. We have teachers chairing the education committee, farmers chairing the agriculture committee. This is a citizen legislature. There's no conflict in this case, except by virtue of my being a member of this 1,300-person organization, the Minneapolis Police Department."

Other legislators familiar with capitol politics aren't so sure. "This office is a political victim," Skoglund asserts. "This has a chilling effect on anybody who does their job properly. If you do your job properly and offend powerful legislators, you just might find yourself out of a job."

What's most strange, adds Skoglund, is that when the ombudsman's office investigates complaints, it usually finds that the police did their job correctly. "There are reasons why the police can't do more. But now there's basically nobody you can go to if police don't do anything," he says.

"Crime victims will be totally ignored," Skoglund concludes. "That's the message."

 

The American system of criminal justice was designed to protect the security of the populace and maintain social order. As a result, criminal cases are not carried out between the victim and the offender, but between the state and the offender. That's why the Bill of Rights protects the rights of those who are accused of crimes: to ensure that they aren't mistreated by the powerful government that prosecutes them. The U.S. Constitution does not require that victims be kept abreast of a criminal case. They don't have to be told if there's an arrest, or whether a trial date has been set or delayed. Bluntly put, the system tends to leave out the victim.

The consequences of that fact gave rise to the Victims' Rights Movement, which over the past three decades has striven to achieve greater protection for crime victims and a stronger voice within the justice system. In 1984 a governor-appointed task force held public hearings across Minnesota to learn what citizens felt were the needs of crime victims. The following year the legislature created the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman, which opened for business in May 1986. Additionally, throughout the 1980s and '90s the legislature passed new laws that gave crime victims various rights--from the right to receive notification of events in the legal process to the right to describe the harm an offender caused, in the form of a "victim impact statement" presented during sentencing.

"For perpetrators the rights and services are far greater than for crime victims," Goodman-Brown says. "I would never advocate for a law or policy that would violate the rights of a defendant. But that doesn't mean we have to violate the rights of victims."

Goodman-Brown is well versed in the criminal justice system. After earning degrees in law enforcement and organizational communication at Normandale Community College and Metropolitan State University, she spent 12 years working as a police officer with the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and the Minneapolis Police Department; during her 9 years with the latter agency, she worked in assignments ranging from beat patrol to vice to narcotics, ultimately rising to the rank of sergeant. In 1992 then-Gov. Arne Carlson appointed her to be the state's crime-victims ombudsman.

Goodman-Brown credits the appointment to her history of careful investigations. "I worked my cases well," she says. "I've always had a keen sense of justice and fairness."

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.

"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."

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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