April 11, 2019

Chelsea Penning, crime victim advocate with the Department of Community Justice

Chelsea Penning, an advocate for domestic violence survivors, had come to sit with a woman and her son in their home while police tracked down the boyfriend who abused her. But as the woman steeped some tea, someone pounded on the door.

Penning’s eyes darted to the woman’s face and saw panic in her eyes. “It’s him,” the woman mouthed as she motioned Penning toward the bathroom. Penning fled the room and dialed 9-1-1.

The woman opened the door to find her partner furious. He began to shout. The voices got closer. Penning looked for anything she could use as a weapon, but found nothing more threatening than a plunger.

Something else caught Penning’s attention as the risk of violence grew: the woman’s tone. She spoke softly, soothing, and kept her partner talking. Then Penning heard a crash and the sound of glass breaking as police barged in.

Penning saw inspirational power in this seemingly mild-mannered woman — someone who could stay calm and think clearly even with her life at risk. Penning sees resilience again and again in the people she works with as an advocate.

It’s the woman who fought back during an attack, cracking a blender carafe over her offender’s head. It’s also the woman who passed her offender’s jail cell and coolly cracked a joke when he professed his love.

Or it’s the woman who wasn’t ready to leave, at first. Months later, that same woman refused to cover the metal staples holding her skull together, saying, “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed.” She left her partner even though it meant she’d be unable to afford her rent, forcing her to ask her parents to watch the children so they wouldn’t be homeless, too.

“She had lost everything,” Penning recalls. “But she found this fighter.”

Advocacy

The Board of Commissioners Thursday recognized National Crime Victims’ Rights Week in Multnomah County.

“I’m reminded about how far we’ve come,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury, whose mother Gretchen Kafoury welcomed survivors of domestic violence into the family's home.

"There weren’t any shelters or services through the criminal justice system. We had to rely on random nice people in the community," Chair Kafoury said. "So it’s great to hear that there is a concerted effort — that there are people who are trained and compassionate to help people at the worst times in their lives.”

The Board heard from leaders from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Community Justice about the rights afforded to victims of crime and how their advocates help ensure those victims understand their rights.

Victims have rights enshrined in state and federal law that address every stage of prosecution. Some rights are automatic, such as the right to protection from the accused during an investigation. And some are rights the victim must request, such as the right to be consulted about plea negotiations in the case of a violent felony.

After a case is closed, victims have an automatic right to restitution and may request the right to be notified about any release hearings.

The process and jargon can be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. That’s where advocates step in, making sure victims know what their rights are and how to exercise them.

“The offender has an attorney at every step to make sure they know what they’re supposed to be doing and making sure their needs are met, their rights are protected,” Penning said. “No lawyer is assigned to the victim. Even the state attorney is not the victim’s attorney and sometimes has to make decisions the victim doesn’t like. An advocate is the one person who doesn’t have any other motive but to support the victim.”

In Multnomah County, victims of domestic violence can find advocates at any time.

Rhea DuMont, community justice manager with the Department of Community Justice's Crime Victim Services Unit

Call to Safety is a 24-hour hotline and regional clearinghouse that connects survivors of domestic and sexual violence, stalking, and to local services. Survivors of intimate partner violence can visit the Gateway Center, a Multnomah County and City of Portland project that provides support and services. Survivors can also find support from a team of advocates housed in Multnomah County’s Domestic Violence Crisis Services that deploys when police respond to a call of domestic violence.

Victims of crimes other than domestic violence can find support through the Crime Victim Service Center at Lutheran Community Services, which can provide advocates as soon as the day an offense occurs, for as long as a person needs support.

Anytime the District Attorney's Office files felony or domestic violence charges, victims in those cases are assigned an advocate through the Victim Assistance Program. Those advocates guide victims through the prosecution process and can refer individuals to other community services.

After a guilty plea or verdict closes a case, advocates from the Crime Victims Services Unit at Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice send a letter to the victims. They introduce themselves, explain the parole and probation process, and offer whatever support those victims might need.

Dignity

But advocates do so much more than notify victims when an offender is up for probation. In cases of domestic violence — which makes up the bulk of their caseload — they help victims develop a safety plan. That plan might include finding somewhere else to live, installing security systems and motion cameras, or helping them anonymize their address.

Haley Pursell has worked with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 survivors of domestic violence over the years. She says the job changes depending on what a survivor needs. One person might need housing. Another might need someone to accompany them to a court hearing. But at its most basic, the relationship between an advocate and a client is about validating the survivor’s experience and helping them trust themselves again.

“The basis of domestic violence is psychological abuse. It’s really about messing with people’s belief in themselves,” Pursell said. “One way people heal is by developing relationships with healthy boundaries. An advocate can help create a healthy and trusting relationship. Survivors can set limits and nothing bad happens.”

By the time Pursell meets a survivor of domestic violence, that person has not only experienced abuse from a loved one, but has also often been chided by well-meaning family and friends — further weakening their faith in themselves. That can drive a survivor to leave a relationship before they’re ready.

“The average survivor leaves seven times, and each time they come back, the violence usually escalates,” Pursell said. “By encouraging a loved one to leave before they’re ready, you may increase their risk of harm if they return because the violence will likely get worse.”

The best way to support a crime victim is to listen to them and follow their lead, Pursell said: “They are the experts in their situation and they know what’s best.”

Voice

Victims have the right to be heard. They can make recommendations to prosecutors regarding presentence release. They have the right to be consulted about plea negotiations. And they have the right to speak up in court. Advocates also make sure those voices are heard when governments and agencies create systems set up to protect and support crime victims.

Natalie Weaver, a member of the Crime Victim Services Unit, coordinates the Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative, composed of law enforcement, other government agencies, and service providers. The team leads the County-wide effort to better identify and support survivors, to better investigate, prosecute and supervise offenders; and to increase education that can prevent sex trafficking.

Weaver works with survivors of sex trafficking who help shape and improve those efforts. The Collaborative is forming an advisory board made up of people who have experienced sex trafficking that can work on that project and advise the system. Weaver also organizes focus groups to get feedback on the programs and policies.

Participants have talked about struggling to identify with the vocabulary — finding common words like “victim,” “survivor,” and even “sex trafficking” often do not fit. So her team has tried to shift the focus.

“Instead of giving them the identity of ‘victim’ or ‘survivor,’ we want to recognize that this is only part of their experience,” Weaver said. “Like your job title is not your identity, the violence committed against you is not your identity.”

Andy Klein, owner of Pepino’s Mexican Grill, believes community is safer when offenders get support and treatment.

People who have been trafficked also often do not relate to the images of bondage and kidnapping so prevalent on outreach materials meant to raise awareness around sex trafficking, Weaver said.

Most people who end up traded for sex are not abducted by brute force. Rather they are more often coerced and groomed into the trade through false romantic relationships or false advertising. It’s a gradual expansion of boundaries, Weaver explained, not a midnight kidnapping with ropes and chains.

The Collaborative has shifted its messaging away from those visuals to more general themes of safety and seeking help.

The move is part of a broader effort by the Crime Victim Services Unit at the Department of Community Justice to incorporate victim voices into their programs, and create programs that meet victims’ needs.

“It’s about making sure we’re centering their needs in whatever we do to create system change,” said Rhea DuMont, community justice manager for the unit.

Restorative Justice

The Victim Services Unit has developed a new mission statement and is looking at new programs, such as expanding its restorative justice program beyond its work with youths to include adults.

“Victims often want to talk to the person who hurt them, and research shows satisfaction with the justice process is significantly higher,” DuMont said. “Restorative justice is a victim service. It’s about being survivor-centered.”

Victims often have questions the court can’t answer, such as, “Why me?”

Restorative justice isn’t appropriate in cases when the risk of manipulation and psychological abuse might further harm the victim. But it often gives the victim some closure.

Andy Klein understands theft is part of any cash business. So when the owner of Pepino’s Mexican Grill learned an employee was stealing, he wasn’t shocked. He had taken a chance on a teenager with a troubled past. A young man who lived in a supervised youth home and seemed disinterested in work.

“I try to be a person people don’t want to steal from, but I wasn’t too surprised,” Klein said. “It wasn’t a ton of money, and he was really sorry.”

Klein questioned what good would come from criminal charges and instead requested a meeting with the boy, coordinated through the Multnomah County Restorative Dialogue Program and the boy’s juvenile caseworker.

Klein asked the young man to pick a volunteer project as community service, and the young man mentioned Habitat for Humanity. Then Klein decided to volunteer alongside the teen.

Klein would pick him up at the youth home and take him to the job site. Usually, they’d stop for a meal and talk about life. That was a few years ago.

“It was a good opportunity,” Klein said. “When he was working for me, it was hard to motivate him, and often I wasn’t there. When we worked for Habitat for Humanity, I could just focus on helping him out, and he really turned around.”

Klein watched the teen graduate from a youth rehabilitation program, and he listened as people spoke about how much the young man had developed.

“If I had gone after him, if I had been really upset and taken him to court, because of his history, it would really have hurt him,” Klein said. “I don’t think that would have helped him. And it wouldn’t have helped the community either.”

Resources

Any time you need support

  • Call to Safety:  This  24-hour hotline and regional clearing house connects survivors of domestic and sexual violence, stalking, and sex trafficking to local services. Dial 503-235-5333

  • Gateway Center: This City of Portland and Multnomah County project supports survivors of intimate-partner domestic violence. 10305 E. Burnside. Weekdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

  • Crime Victim Service Center: Lutheran Community Services advocates for victims of any crime, starting as soon as the day an offense occurs and for as long as a person needs support.

Once criminal charges are filed

  • Victim Assistance Program: The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office

  • National Victim Notification Network: This free resource provides information regarding an offender’s custody status.

  • Case Companion: After criminal proceedings are over, and after incarceration, an offender may be supervised by a probation and parole officer. For victims whose offenders live in Multnomah County, this web and phone application allows you to learn your rights, connect to advocates and track your case.