CHARLESTON - Jennifer Raffety, Mississippi County prosecuting attorney, said she remembers several instances when down to the last case on the docket she has looked out to see only two faces left in the courtroom besides court officers and lawyers: the defendant and the victim.
"I imagine many victims feel very alone," said Raffety. "With a victim advocate, they're not alone at all."
For those not employed in the legal field, court proceedings can be very confusing. Lawyers and law enforcement officers are used to the process and defendants have their attorney to explain how things work.
Victims, on the other hand, are often placed in the middle of things as a key witness with no one to explain what is going on.
"There was really a void," said Mary Anne Clayton who, before becoming the crime victim advocate for Mississippi County in October, served with the Mississippi County Sheriff's Department for nine years.
Having a victim advocate to refer victims to after they reported a crime "made our job easier," Clayton recalled. "A lot of people get frustrated with the length of time it takes for the case to get to court."
Marsha Keene-Hutchason, director of victim services at the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center in East Prairie, said the victim advocate program got its start in Mississippi County when the center secured a grant to start a domestic violence program in 1996.
As the number of clients increased, they saw a need for someone to assist victims with court proceedings and obtained a grant to hire a victim advocate through the Missouri Department of Public Safety in July 1998.
While the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center continues to provide a wide array of services for victims, the victim advocate is someone who can help them keep track of when they need to appear in court and why, explaining the court process and legal terms "in everyday language," said Keene-Hutchason.
Keene-Hutchason said after seeing how well a victim advocate worked for Mississippi County, Circuit Judge David A. Dolan said he would "really like something like that for Scott County."
Susanna Wesley Center personnel helped Dolan write the grant - the first of its type written by a judge in Missouri, according to Keene-Hutchason.
"All victims have rights and we're here to ensure they get them," said Taryn Merideth, who started as victim advocate for Scott County Nov. 19.
Merideth said her duties include helping victims recover stolen property, apply for crime victims compensation and draft victim impact statements.
Victim advocates also help victims keep tabs on parole and release dates for those they help convict or were victimized by and assist with filing protection orders and other crisis intervention help.
They even help provide transportation not only to court and back but also to counseling and other places to help get their lives back on track.
One of the most important things they offer, however, is emotional support. "We help them prepare for court proceedings and go with them so they don't have to go sit there themselves," said Merideth.
Raffety said walking victims through the courtroom where they will testify and introducing them to the prosecuting attorneys can reduce some of the tension many victims feel - especially when being stared down while giving their testimony by someone who victimized them.
Keene-Hutchason said the success of the victim advocate services in Mississippi County can be attributed to the excellent cooperation between her agency, the prosecutor's office and area law enforcement.
Merideth said local law enforcement and the prosecutors office in Scott County have already expressed their support for the program there as well.
Keene-Hutchason said 386 victims were assisted last year in Mississippi County. "The goal for Scott County is to reach 500 victims," said Merideth.