Denise Peña, manager of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice’s (DCJ) Crime Victims Services Unit, received national recognition for her tireless commitment to helping victims.
Peña was honored last month with the Joe Kegans Award for Victim Services in Probation and Parole, an annual award presented at the American Probation and Parole Association’s (APPA) Winter Institute.
The award honors an individual in community corrections who has provided exemplary service to victims of crime. It was established as a tribute to the late Judge Joe Kegans, a founding member of the national organization’s Victim Issues Committee and the first woman to serve as a criminal district court judge in Texas. Kegans devoted her career as a jurist to improving the lives of all with whom she came into contact.
“For a victim, it doesn’t end at conviction,” said Peña, reflecting on the award. “Victim advocacy is very front-loaded and then, when the case is done they have to navigate the post-conviction world and that’s the least known part of the criminal justice system.”
Born in Brazil, Peña came to the states as a child. Her family lived in Venezuela, Florida and Georgia before settling in Oregon when her father got a job at Intel. She grew up in the Beaverton-area and went to Aloha High School. After graduation, she pursued a degree in liberal arts at Portland State University.
To earn money, she became an on-call employee at the nearby YWCA in downtown Portland which served as a women’s shelter.
“It was women and kids escaping domestic violence,” Peña said. “That’s how it started.”
Peña worked her way up from an on-call employee to a residential assistant. As an RA, she was the only staff on site for women and children. She ran a 24-hour hotline. She would come up with transition plans for victims.
“Despite the hard work many women went back,” Pena said. “Most of the cases that we worked went unreported.”
Peña eventually became a case manager at the YWCA, then transitioned to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. As an advocate, she guided victims through the prosecution process and connected them to resources in the community.
“We would deal with different crime victims - homicide victims,” she explains. “I heard one victim say ‘crime takes a moment but justice takes an eternity,’ and that’s something that I use in my trainings today to bring home the fact that this doesn’t end at conviction.”
Peña’s ability to speak three languages -- English, Spanish and Portuguese -- has helped her serve more people.
A personal and private experience, as a crime victim in 2007, also shaped her life and helped her truly understand the plight of a victim.
“The most frustrating part for me was that our criminal justice system as a whole was not set up for the victim who experiences hardships - especially the fine details of when a perpetrator might be released. The system is better today. But navigating a complicated and uncommunicative post-conviction process, it’s just not victim centered.”
In 2004, Peña was hired as a Parole and Probation Officer (PPO) with Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice Domestic Violence Unit.
“I actually wanted to work in the DV unit and to continue to work for victims by working to change the batterer’s behavior. “
In 2013, she was tapped to run Multnomah County’s Victim Services Unit and broaden services for those on the other end of crime.
She built a unit that provides services to crime victims for the County’s Adult and Juvenile Divisions. The unit, which includes eight team members, often serves as a model for other Oregon counties.
“It’s her passion, commitment and strategic awareness that has allowed Multnomah County to serve victims in a compassionate and effective manner,” said DCJ Director Scott Taylor, who attended the Winter Institute. “Her leadership has been key in the growing awareness of how community corrections needs to address the needs of victims.”
She was instrumental in beginning a statewide association of Community Corrections Victims Services Providers to share knowledge and expertise. She is also a driving force in the development of a statewide collaborative project to develop an automated victims portal, Case Companion. The portal, which uses information from the District Attorney's office, the Department of Corrections, the Parole Board and the Probation and Parole supervision files, allows victims to access the information they want at the point in the process they choose to access it.
“I may win an award but I’m not doing it on my own,” she says. “It’s a reflection of the work of my unit and staff. It’s the parole and probation officers and juvenile court counselors who also focus on the needs of victims. It’s a reflection of the department taking this on as a commitment and priority. ”
“What keeps me going is this increasing awareness in victims rights post-conviction.”