"I think that everybody now in the justice system and those responsible for funding the justice system fully understand the value" of the program, he said.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin J. McGee said that crime victims often are in the dark about what the court system expects from them--and what to expect from the system. Victim advocates can serve as their interpreters and guides.
"They are the connection between the outside world and the inside of the system," adds Matthew Hardy, a deputy district attorney who worked closely with the department for seven years as a sex crimes prosecutor.
"Victims can feel very alone and isolated," he said. "They can feel very separate from the system. They can start conjuring up all kinds of demons. And what the victim advocates can do is bring them back [to reality]."
Ellie Liston has provided a shoulder to cry on for hundreds of crime victims in her 17 years as a Ventura County victim advocate.
She has helped women beaten and raped regain a sense of security in their lives. She has helped locate shelter for children molested by parents and strangers.
And she has held the hands of fathers and mothers of homicide victims as they face the harsh realities of the criminal justice system.
"This is not a sit-back job," said Liston, a former nurse who says the reward in her job is helping someone become whole again.
The most difficult cases are those involving children and murder cases involving law enforcement personnel, Liston said. One such case was the recent murder trial of Daniel Allan Tuffree, a former schoolteacher who was convicted of killing Simi Valley Police Officer Michael F. Clark in August 1995. Liston was there to support widow Jenifer Clark and her family through the January trial, and an earlier one that ended in a hung jury.
Liston is currently assigned to helping victims of gang crimes. And as one of the most senior members of the division, she teaches new advocates how to help those who have been affected by crime.
"I teach them the ropes. No. 1, they can't help everyone who comes in. They have to help that victim or the victim's family try to gain back what they have lost."
Hardy remembers a situation years ago in which a father accused of molesting his child killed himself on the day of his arraignment. Hardy and Liston had to tell the mother when she arrived at the courthouse.
"I can remember walking into the place with Ellie Liston and my mouth opened up and nothing came out," Hardy recalled. "Ellie just took over."
Advocates must have 40 hours of state training from the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, as well as 38 hours of training within the Ventura County district attorney's office. Five victims advocates are scheduled to attend the session in Sacramento in June.
Each full-time advocate in the department has a specialty area, such as domestic violence or sexual assault. Last year, the division added three new specialists in the areas of statutory rape, gang crimes and elder abuse--crimes against the elderly, such as telemarketing scams and other forms of financial abuse, are on the increase, along with cases of physical abuse and neglect.
But the area of largest growth is domestic violence, easily measured in the hundreds of restraining orders that advocates help victims fill out each year.
"That is one area that is mushrooming," O'Neill said.
Donna Kraft never thought she would make it this far.
Nearly eight years into a marriage that had become progressively more violent, Kraft finally made a decision to leave her husband two years ago. She was beaten and battered and afraid for her life. She said she could not have done it alone.
"It's really hard to break that cycle and it's really hard to step out of that life and feel like you're a whole person," she said. "And it's almost impossible to do on your own."
With her advocate by her side, she started the process of putting her life back together. When she would go to court, the advocate would shield her from her spouse. And when she thought she couldn't go through with it, her advocate was there for comfort and support.
Today, Kraft volunteers with the city of Ventura's Domestic Violence Response Team, providing emotional support to domestic violence victims.
And during National Victims' Rights Week, she will be marching alongside the advocates and other victims of abuse Wednesday to add her voice to the growing outcry in Ventura County against domestic violence.
"I don't think the advocates get enough recognition," Kraft said. "They really do stay behind the scenes and make sure they are there for the victims. I really admire what they do, every one of them."
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To get help if you have been the victim of a crime, or to volunteer to be a victims' rights advocate, call 654-3919.