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Victim/Witness Assistance named Program of the Year
Assistant Director Gwen Howell, left, and Director Vicky Belcher of the Martinsville Victim.Witness Assistance Program show the Program of the Year award from the Virginia Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Friday, December 7, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Martinsville’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program has been honored by the Virginia Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund as its Program of the Year.
The fund helps compensate crime victims for expenses such as medical bills, lost wages and counseling. It gets its money from assessments on convicted criminals, court fees and federal grant funds, its website shows.
In honoring the city program, the fund took into account factors such as the program’s devotion to helping victims recover from crimes, its high level of applications on behalf of victims and its efforts to make sure victims are compensated quickly, according to a letter that city officials received.
The Victim/Witness Assistance Program is authorized by the state’s Victim and Witness Rights Act, which aims to ensure that victims and witnesses are treated by police and the courts with dignity and respect.
The local program serves an average of 80 to 120 people every three months, said Director Vicky Belcher.
In the past year, the fund paid a total of a little more than $80,000 toward 116 compensation claims handled by Martinsville’s program, statistics show.
Many of those claims pertained to a fire at the Spruce Village apartments in June that city officials determined was caused by arson.
The victim/witness program’s help to residents of the complex after the blaze influenced the fund’s decision to recognize the program, according to the fund’s director, Mary Vail Ware.
After the fire occurred, Ware said, staff members of the program “didn’t have to scramble” to help the residents.”
She said that was largely due to Belcher’s efforts.
“When things got bad, she had all her resources lined up already” through established relationships with community entities that helped the fire victims, such as motels that provided lodging, Ware said.
In terms of her work, Belcher “has always been amazing, and she was even more amazing after the fire,” added Ware.
Belcher and Gwen Howell, the program’s assistant director, help clients in numerous ways, the city’s website shows. In addition to helping people get compensation for being crime victims, the program’s services include:
• Explaining steps and procedures involved in the judicial process.
• Providing escorts to court proceedings to make victims and witnesses more comfortable.
• Contacting businesses and schools to explain why an employee or student needs time off to be in court.
“We basically hold victims’ (and witnesses’) hands” as they participate in legal proceedings, Belcher said.
That is necessary, she said, because going to court can be scary for people when they do not know what to expect. Because of their heavy work loads, court employees often lack time to speak personally with people involved in cases, and attorneys sometimes do not have as much time to spend with clients as they would like, she added.
Based on her experiences, Belcher said that Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar and her staff, as well as city police and sheriff’s office deputies, try to make sure people they deal with are treated fairly.
Most localities statewide have victim/witness programs.
For that reason, Belcher said she was “pleasantly surprised” when she learned her program received the award.
“It’s definitely an honor,” she said.
Overall, the Martinsville program has been successful because Belcher and Howell are “very thorough” and understand their clients’ needs, Ware said.
“That is not the case in every” city and county, she said.