For 12 years, Winona County has had a Victim Services Coordinator who works with victims as they navigate the complex criminal justice system. The position is in the Winona County Attorney’s Office, and is dedicated to meeting the needs of those harmed after a crime.
This year, Winona County lost the grant that has funded the service. The grant was awarded through the state, which relies on federal dollars. The current Victim Services Coordinator will leave her post on November 7, and the Winona County Attorney’s Office is working to craft a plan to cover those duties internally.
The Women’s Resource Center in Winona helps victims of sexual or domestic violence, while the county Victim Services Coordinator focused her efforts on victims of other kinds of crimes. However, the Women’s Resource Center lost its funding through the same grant program. Funds were cut by approximately 15 percent and staff reduced to five, compared to seven employees at the center last year.
Fillmore and Houston counties also lost grant funding for their Victim Services Coordinator positions.
The blow to victim advocacy across the region has some people worried that when community members are most in need, they will not have the same level of help as in the past. The Coordinator alleviated the strain on the County Attorney's office, which is burdened with its own case loads. That office will now have to make tough decisions on how much time can be allotted to assisting crime victims. Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman is confident that victim services will remain as strong as they had been with a full-time coordinator.
Others aren’t so sure. Former Women’s Resource Center Victim Advocate Eryn Redig Potthast (see her letter page 4a) said she often worked closely with the Victim Services Coordinator during her years at the center, and that the person holding the position was nearly always available when a victim reached out for help or had questions about the legal system. Attorneys and support staff at the County Attorney’s office often have extremely heavy workloads, she said, which may make it hard to replicate the services provided by the coordinator. “It was extremely helpful to have one access point for victims in a system that can feel extremely overwhelming when you have just been victimized,” she said. “A victim services person takes the four-hour phone call when a victim simply needs to process what has happened. A victim services person drops everything when a victim needs to come in and talk right now.”
Sonneman said that victims have rights within the Minnesota courts system, and those rights are detailed within state law. The law puts the responsibility of ensuring those victim rights are upheld in the hands of the prosecutor or, ultimately, Sonneman herself. She said she takes that job very seriously.
“The fact that we’re losing this position doesn’t mean, by any means, that those services will end,” said Sonneman. She is working to integrate those services into her department now, and said that it is part of a reorganization of workload logistics. “I think [victim services] can be provided in different ways, in effective ways that deliver what is needed to victims,” she said. “To me, it’s a challenge to do things better and more effectively and more efficiently with less.”
Sonneman said that some of the state-required victim services are already being handled by support staff in her office, such as automated letters sent out that tell victims when court hearings are scheduled, and letters that ask what kind of information the victim would like to receive to follow a case through court proceedings. But she said acting as counselor for a victim presents a fine line for prosecution staff, because prosecutors may be required to disclose at trial certain information they gather. “We can’t become social workers or counselors or psychologists to victims,” she said. Instead, Sonneman said she plans to collaborate with other agencies that provide those kinds of assistance for people. Her office may refer a victim for counseling or for mental health treatment, she said, and will do its best to find the right resources to help victims deal with the aftermath of the crime that affected them.
Sonneman expects that he prosecutors assigned to a victim's case can assist, and will be a consistent contact person for that victim. If a prosecutor is too busy, Sonneman said she will ultimately be responsible for the service. “Everybody has time to talk to somebody. There are priorities in this office,” she said. “Our attorneys are extraordinary in their ability to balance a lot of things. If a victim doesn’t have anywhere else to turn, then we will make our best effort here to make sure that there’s somebody who calls them and talks to them.”
Women’s Resources Director Diana Miller said that despite budget cuts to the center, no victim will ever be turned away. There may be things such as education and research that will fall to the wayside in her office because of the reduced funding, but the trend for less funding for victims does make her worry. “It makes me uneasy and concerns me because we’re dealing with people’s safety and their well-being and their health, and the safety of their children,” she said. “Victims do feel overwhelmed. Obviously, if you are a victim of any crime you feel violated, you feel outraged, you know as a victim that you are entitled to justice and you want to access the system, but you really don’t know how it works and what the steps are. There needs to be someone to work [to] ensure that the victim has safety and support and the victim’s rights are upheld throughout that process. [Victim advocacy] is not an extra. It’s an essential.”
“We have to look to the future; we can’t just be static, and just look at what’s happening today,” Sonneman said of the change. “If we start seeing a drop [in services] or we start getting complaints, we are certainly going to respond quickly.”
Houston County also lost funding for its Victim Services Coordinator, but the loss of the grant won’t mean the loss of the position. The Houston County Board recently voted to fund the position through the end of the year, and asked cities within the county to consider chipping in to continue the position.
Fillmore County also lost its grant funds for its Victim Services Coordinator, and Sonneman said she did discuss the possibility of the two counties sharing a coordinator or some sort of victim services position in the future. Winona County has collaborated with Fillmore County on several efforts in recent years, including sharing a Human Services and Community Health Director.
While the decision has been made to cut the position in Winona County, elected board members have not voted on the cut. At its last strategic planning session, the board did discuss how to handle grant-funded positions when the outside money runs out, and several members made it clear they didn’t want the county workforce to necessarily expand by continuing all grant-based positions after the grant expires. The board, however, did not take a vote on the matter, and did not appear to reach consensus on the issue. “The question I think we have to ask as a board is if it wasn’t a grant-funded position, would [we] have hired [the person in the beginning],” commissioner Jim Pomeroy said during that strategic planning session.
Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert said he felt, based on the discussions the board has had in the past about grant-funded positions, that it did not want to continue the Victim Services Coordinator job. He said it was the board’s general “philosophical” approach to grant-funded positions that he used to determine whether to retain the employee.