FREEHOLD – The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office is marking National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (NCVRW), which is taking place April 24-30, by recognizing and honoring the various professionals who make up the Office’s Victim Witness Unit, which works tirelessly year-round to ensure that the needs of such individuals are met and their interests served.
“The theme for the 2022 NCVRW is ‘rights, access, and equity for all victims,’ and that is an ideal that this Unit has long gone above and beyond the call of duty to uphold,” Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Lori Linskey said. “We see our work at the Prosecutor’s Office as two-pronged in nature, and these dedicated public servants are fundamentally key to that: with one hand we seek to bring the perpetrators of crime to justice, and with the other we seek to deliver the victims of crime the compassion, services, and rehabilitative care they rightfully deserve.”
The MCPO Victim Witness Unit currently features seven advocates and three clericals working under the leadership of Unit Director Barbara Barbolini. Each advocate has a specialized function:
- Advocate Laura Finlay is stationed at the Monmouth County Child Advocacy Center (CAC) and works directly with victims of sex crimes and child abuse, providing parents and guardians of juvenile victims with resources starting the moment a crime is reported;
- Advocate Karyn Levana provides services to victims in various indictable cases as they first arise, contacting them within 24 to 48 hours of when an arrest is made;
- Advocate Kim Sabin provides services to victims in most of the Office’s domestic violence cases, along with assistance from Levana; she also trains Domestic Violence Response Team volunteers on providing victim services;
- Advocate Cristina Russo provides services to victims of financial crimes, as well as many of the criminally charged motor vehicle cases handled by the Prosecutor’s Office;
- Advocate Kaitlin Alamo provides services to victims and witnesses in the various indictable cases handled by the Office’s three Trial Teams and the Juvenile Unit;
- Advocate Susana Benitez handles the majority of the Office’s cases involving Spanish-speaking victims; she has also been assisting the Director with training the Office’s newest Advocate, who is also bilingual:
- Jazmine Acevedo is the newest addition to the team; while undergoing training, she is also assisting her fellow advocates if they are working with Spanish-speaking victims, and she is also assisting with the Office’s “Krol” cases, which involve defendants whose mental health needs to be evaluated and monitored.
The advocates also participate in continuous training to stay up-to-date on resources available to victims, and each is cross-trained by case specialty, so if any individual advocate is unavailable, another can readily step in to assist. Homicide cases are split up among the advocates, and there are always two assigned to each case.
“Our advocates’ work is often as challenging as it is rewarding,” Barbolini said. “In the immediate aftermath of a crime, victims can experience a flood of overwhelmingly powerful emotions, and our work involves calmly and respectfully guiding them through the steps of the criminal justice system while remaining mindful of their various needs.”
That’s a process that involves no shortage of duties. In the execution of their responsibilities, MCPO advocates:
- Provide general information to victims and witnesses about the criminal and juvenile justice systems;
- Provide specific information on the status and disposition of the cases in which they are involved;
- Assist with crisis intervention;
- Provide transportation, if individuals are subpoenaed to appear in court;
- Provide a secure waiting area before and after court appearances;
- Assist with the return of property held in evidence, when possible;
- Assist with completing and providing Victim Information and Impact Statements;
- Provide accompaniment to court proceedings;
- Provide child care, if necessary, while parent victims or witnesses are testifying;
- Assist with applications to the Victims of Crime Compensation Office (VCCO);
- Assist in requesting restitution to be submitted to the court;
- Provide employer, school, and creditor letters for court attendance;
- Provide counseling referrals for issues related to the experience of being a victim of crime and/or testifying in court; and
- Provide referrals to social service agencies.
There’s also one more key member of the Unit who merits recognition: “Surf” the facility dog, a yellow Labrador retriever who meets with young victims of abuse from across the county at the CAC, as the centerpiece of a newly implemented therapy initiative shown to lessen victim anxiety and improve outcomes of investigations into such crimes. Surf’s first day on the job was in September 2021.
Usage of the Unit’s various services has increased significantly following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Monmouth County. During the first quarter of 2022, more than 3,600 victims were provided services, creating a projection of an estimated 14,400 individuals served for the full year – a figure that eclipses the totals recorded in 2021 (10,835) and 2020 (5,808).
Individuals receiving VCCO compensation services so far this year have topped 600, also projecting out to a three-year high. In 2020, more than $1 million in VCCO payouts were made to victims; these funds cover expenses such as funerals, temporary housing, crime scene cleanup, and more.
The Unit is also responsible for sending out notifications to victims to keep them informed about the status of their cases and upcoming court proceedings, issuing several tens of thousands annually.
For more information about NCVRW, go online to the website for the federal Office for Victims of Crime at https://ovc.ojp.gov/.