Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Victim Advocacy And The Strife Of Interests

 The OVA

The motto sprawled over the Office of Victims Advocate (OVA) site for the state of Connecticut reads: “Giving voices to crime victims throughout the state of Connecticut.”

The OVA site, which contains a picture of the state’s Victims Advocate, Garvin Ambrose, a new arrival from Cook County in Illinois, boasts that the office is an “independent state agency with the charge of protecting and enforcing crime victims’ rights throughout the state of Connecticut.”

Independent, one might ask, of whom?

According to its site, the OVA “receives and investigates victims’ complaints regarding their treatment in the criminal justice process,” which may involve a host of actors and processes including but not limited to: law enforcement agencies; victim compensation; court-based and non-profit advocates; presiding judges and prosecutors, a fairly complete accounting of those in the justice system who may, intentionally or not, cause harm or distress to victims.

In addition to its principal mandate, the OVA has the statutory authority and resources to “intervene in court cases to advocate for a victim when their rights have been violated”… to “make recommendations to the legislature, criminal justice professionals and victim service providers for changes in state policies and laws to benefit crime victims” ... and to “provide education and outreach about services available to the public.”

The OVA is a creature of statute, which is to say it was created by the state legislature though, as a putative independent agency, it is answerable to Connecticut’s chief executive, Governor Dannel Malloy, who is charged with appointing the Advocate.

Even a cursory reading of the statute creating the office indicates that the legislature was concerned with the independence of the OVA – “the Victim Advocate shall act independently of any state department in the performance of the advocate's duties” – and the office’s oversight responsibilities as they pertain to constitutional rights of victims: The agency is charged with reviewing “the procedures established by any state agency or other entity providing services to victims with respect to the constitutional rights of victims,” a broad and brave mandate to which Mr. Ambrose tipped his hat immediately after he was installed as Connecticut’s voice for victims.

“As your newest State Victim Advocate at the Office of the Victim Advocate (OVA), I am humbled by the opportunity to serve the numerous individuals and families of Connecticut and am excited about the possibilities for positive change that lie ahead for crime victims,” Mr. Ambrose advised. “While the State of Connecticut continues to make strides in recognizing the necessity of including crime victims in the criminal justice and legislative arenas, it is important that the voices of all victims be heard. To ensure this outcome, it is my intent, and the goal of the OVA, to properly serve all those who find themselves in the position of a crime victim.”

Ok, ok – we get it. The mandate of the office is to represent the interests of victims as cases wend their way slowly through the state’s Byzantine legal system. It is one of the more humane duties of the Victims Advocate to soften the blows and buffets received by the victims of sexual aggression, even more so when the aggressors and victims are family members.

Due Discrimination

One would like to believe that the state’s new Victims Advocate is able to distinguish between victims of child abuse and those accused of child abuse. But a letter written to Judge Joan Alexander in a case involving child abuse in Glastonbury raises some nettlesome questions.

According to court documents, George Harasz and Douglas Wirth, the parents of nine boys adopted from three family sets, were charged with child abuse after police began an investigation in February and removed the children from the home. Mr. Harasz initially was charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault, aggravated first-degree sexual assault, fourth-degree sexual assault, two counts of risk of injury to a minor and cruelty to persons. At the same time, Mr. Wirth was charged with third-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor.

Mr. Ambrose’s letter to the court written April “respectfully requests that the court consider imposing a probationary period upon both defendants as their egregious conduct demonstrates that they are in dire need of professional guidance and structured supervision. If the court finds their risk of injury conduct was committed for a sexual purpose, the OAV respectfully requests the court strongly consider placing both defendants on the sexual offender registry…”

An arranged plea bargain that reduced all charges against both men to one felony count for each fell apart a short time ago following a stunning revelation involving a Department of Children and Families (DCF) social worker who had attended a meeting between one of the children and a parole officer in the course of which the child claimed that “he has scars from being held down and raped and that those injuries were inflicted by a weapon."

The child’s claim, crucial to the prosecution, was never presented for consideration to the parties that arranged the plea bargain. Quite predictably, the claim of forced rape at knifepoint threw a wrench into what otherwise would have been a pro forma hearing affirming a plea bargain that greatly reduced the initial charges.

The plea bargain was scuttled and the court granted the two accused a trial after Judge Joan Alexander -- considerably incensed at the failure to account for important evidence always available but never introduced in any of the judicial proceedings -- said that while a trial would be risky for both the prosecution and the defense, the case should go to trial “in the interest of justice. The facts must be shown and must be shown publicly."

When a DCF lawyer present in court explained that the social worker had not reported the child’s claim – as she was bound to do under Connecticut law – because she assumed the allegation she had heard was already part of the criminal case, Judge Alexander fairly exploded. She called the explanation ““disingenuous" -- because the victim had noted in the same interview that he had never told investigators about that particular incident.

Dare We Presume

It is extremely important, especially at the beginning of what promises to be a complex legal proceeding, not to arrive at conclusions prematurely. In other cases of this kind, gruesome sexual charges have not been sustained at trial. The initial charges brought against Mr. Harasz and Mr. Wirth may have been exaggerated or not; prosecutors sometime inflate charges in order quickly to arrive at a settlement plea.

That caveat in mind, there is no question that the plea bargain process in this case irretrievably broke down under the weight of a claim that was available to all the actors in this judicial farce. There is no question that Mr. Ambrose’s principal duty in this instance was to fulfill his statutory obligations by representing the interests of those children who had claimed they had been the victims of child abuse; indeed, that is why he is called a Victims Advocate. It is no part of Mr. Ambrose’s responsibility to facilitate a plea bargain favorable to the accused parents of the nine children the state saw fit to remove from their home. Mr. Harasz and Mr. Wirth have competent advocates in attorneys Hubert Santos and Michael Dwyer.

Had Mr. Ambrose interviewed the child who claimed he had been raped at knifepoint by the father who had adopted him or the DCF social worker or the probation officer involved in the interview with the child, that little nugget of information undoubtedly would have shaped all consequent judicial actions – and Mr. Ambrose could have spared himself the trouble of writing to the court a letter requesting a probationary period for persons initially accused of serious sexual crimes against the children whose interests he was by statute supposed to be representing.

Since Mr. Ambrose was so new to his position, it seems proper to ask whether someone above him may have compromised the vaunted “independence” of his office by nudging him to intervene in this case to secure a court judgment favorable to the two defendants. In a perfect world, none of us should need to wait upon a trial that might, in the words of Judge Alexander, show the facts and show then publically.

But, of course, we all know – despite the feverish attempts of world reformers to change it -- that this sorry planet is steeped in political chicanery, ambition and the ceaseless strife of political interests that, in Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “politics,” masquerades as “a contest of principles.”

No comments: