Victim witness program to expand

Contributing Writer

A $139,514 state grant will allow the Anoka County Attorney’s Office to expand its victim witness program.

Accepted by the Anoka County Board Aug. 23, the funding from the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs Crime Victim Services is designed to directly support crime victim services in the county and is available annually through the end of fiscal year 2021 without reapplication.

The state dollars will target expansion of services for elderly and non-English speaking crime victims.

In addition to approving the grant, the County Board, on the recommendation of its Management Committee, authorized the county Attorney’s Office to hire for two new full-time positions, a victim witness specialist and a legal secretary, for the victim witness program with start dates on or after Oct. 1 when the grant goes into effect.

The new positions are contingent on the grant funding and will not involve a budget increase.

According to Emily Douglas, who has been the victim witness program manager for the past 12 years, the new hires will bring staffing in the office to nine, including support staff.

“We were encouraged to apply for the grant by the office of justice programs to help elderly abuse and non-English speaking victims,” County Attorney Tony Palumbo said.

The case load of the victim witness office has increased as the number of felony cases charged by the county attorney’s office has gone up over the past year, he said.

“We are six weeks ahead of last year’s pace,” Palumbo said.

As the state’s senior population increases, cases of elder abuse are on the rise and this issue has been a major focus of his office, according to Palumbo.

In 2012, the county attorney’s office founded the Minnesota Stop Abuse and Financial Exploitation, or SAFE, elders initiative to reduce elder abuse through training, policy and education. The coalition of SAFE community and law enforcement partners produced a Minnesota-focused informational toolkit and video, all leading to a merger with the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project to create the nonprofit Minnesota Elder Justice Center, Palumbo said.

The training of police officers to recognize elder abuse has led to more elder abuse prosecutions by the county attorney’s office, he said.

Likewise, the county’s growing diversity has resulted in a rise in the number of non-English speaking victims seen by the victim witness office and recorded messages are now translated into other languages such as Spanish, Arabic and Russian, Palumbo said.

According to Douglas, the case load of the victim witness office is up substantially over the past two years.

The grant will enable the program to provide more and better services to elderly and non-English speaking victims, Douglas said.

Commissioner Robyn West, who chairs the board’s management committee, was happy to announce the grant award, she said.

The victim witness program provides an essential service to victims of crime who find it very hard to deal with what happens during the trial process, according to West.

The county Attorney’s Office has also been awarded a $5,000 emergency fund grant for fiscal year 2017 by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs to provide emergency financial assistance to crime victims for immediate and essential needs directly related to the crime.

“This money goes to crime victims who are in dire straits and need a little help due to an emergency situation, for example changing locks on a door or providing a cellphone,” Palumbo said.

The County Board’s Management Committee recommended acceptance of the grant, which will go to the full board for final action at its Sept. 13 meeting.

The mission of the county’s victim witness program is “to protect the rights and interests of crime victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system, while encouraging participation in the court process and addressing individual needs brought on by victimization.”

The program provides victim and witness services for cases charged by the county attorney’s office, which include felonies, some gross misdemeanor and misdemeanors and juvenile delinquency cases.

Services include court advocacy, trial updates and financial assistance or restitution, according to the county attorney’s website.