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County victims services coordinator reinstated (01/05/2014)
By Chris Rogers
The attack, locking herself in the bathroom, and calling the police that day was nightmarish. Walking into the old stone courthouse days later to learn what happens next and what she had to do that felt surreal and bewildering in a whole different way.

For over a decade, the Winona County Victims Services Coordinator helped shepherd crime victims through the court system, answering their questions, listening to their concerns, and giving the criminal justice system a human face. When longstanding federal funding was cut in 2012, so was the county position. After a year without a victim services coordinator, the Winona County Attorney's Office recently won a competitive state grant to reinstate the position for a year.

During that year the County Attorney's office was able to provide the "bare bones" victims services required by law, but "we weren't meeting their human needs," explained Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman.

Some victims choose to be relatively disengaged, others want to know what is happening with their case or when their alleged attacker may get out on bail. They may want someone to talk to before confronting the defendant at trial. It is not unusual for victims of violent crimes to be shaken up by their experiences. "If they're having a mental health crisis because of it, then what we can do is refer them to providers," Sonneman said, explaining the victims services role.

"[For] the victims of crimes who have been traumatized, there's trust issues," Sonneman explained. It may be that "this has happened over many years and they finally feel comfortable coming forward." Victims services workers give those victims a sympathetic ear and a voice in the criminal justice system, she explained. That matters, Sonneman continued, because "once crime victims begin to trust the system, they'll be more likely to report the next time [a crime] happens."

When the coordinator position was cut in 2012, some expressed concerns that service for victims would suffer, arguing that the attorneys and support staff members of the County Attorney's Office already have heavy workloads and would not have time to talk with victims. At the time, Sonneman expressed confidence that by reorganizing systems and rearranging workloads her office would be able to maintain the same level of service for victims. In an interview last week, she said that her office had found creative ways to work more efficiently, but acknowledged that the level of service provided had decreased.

In order to meet the basic level of victim services required by state law, including notification of hearings, without a victims services coordinator, the office used automated phone calls and email systems for many of its interactions with victims. "We automated what could be automated, without losing that human face, and probably automated a little more than should have been," Sonneman said. When a human face was needed, the office relied partly on interns from local universities and colleges. The internships are a great program that the office had used for other tasks in the past and will continue to use, Sonneman said, but when it comes to victim services, the interns "are only here for a semester, so you don't have a consistent face for the victims to be able to contact."

The Winona County Board did not discuss cutting or vote to cut the position in 2012. Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert made the decision to eliminate the position based on a board discussion during a strategic planning meeting in 2012. At that meeting several board members said they felt that grant-funded positions should be eliminated if the grant funding runs out. Commissioner Jim Pomeroy, however, argued that the board ought to give more consideration to funding positions it deems worthwhile. In recent years, the county has reduced staff, both grant-funded positions and others, and rearranged workloads in many departments. "In these days, funds are not plentiful, and

taxpayers want to make sure that their money is being used effectively," Sonneman noted.

The board approved a $36,000 grant from the state of Minnesota funding the renewed position without discussion last fall. The grant does not require any local matching funds. The new coordinator has yet to be officially named, but county officials indicated that the position would be filled shortly.

The state grant to fund the position is competitive. Sonneman said that she was hopeful that the county can impress grantors with its performance this year and win the grant again next year. Should her office fail to find grant funding next year, Sonneman said she hopes that county funding for the position will be considered. Whether it is funded by the state, the federal government, or the county, "we benefit from the graciousness of taxpayers," Sonneman said. She added that helping victims "is one of those issues that's a good thing for everybody; it makes the community stronger." 


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