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A lifeline worn thin: Victim advocate shortage plagues several NM counties

Karen Hutchison shows a photo collage of her son Tyler Burgess during the support group of the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death in late March. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Karen Hutchison sketches in a notepad as she talks about her son.

“God help me” is scratched in dark, bold letters onto the page. The room listens intently, allowing Hutchison to breathe.

“I relive that second I found out – over and over again – every day,” she said, her face streaked with tears. “My clock stopped.”

It’s been over a year since police say Hutchison’s son, Joseph “Tyler” Burgess, was shot in the back of the head by his cousin, John Coston, as he searched the fridge.

She is the newest member of the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death support group in Valencia County.

“It’s a safe place where you can be real,” Hutchison said. “I don’t have the ability to fake it anymore. … You laugh if you feel it and cry if you feel it.”

Victim advocate Joan Shirley listens during the support group of the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The support group meets once a month in a small rented room at Heritage Park in Los Lunas, where the center’s victim advocate Joan Shirley and volunteer Susan Williams set up tables and chairs before familiar faces file through the doorway, each brought in by a tragedy. Each carrying a loss.

“You’re talking about the worst thing that could possibly happen to you,” Shirley said. “It is a hellacious experience and brings the strongest people to their knees.”

This is magnified for those in Valencia County, where victim advocates appointed by the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office are overloaded and understaffed, unable to give the hands-on, around-the-clock assistance many victims need as they navigate a complicated criminal justice system.

“They really do try, but they don’t always get it right,” Shirley said. “There’s too much volume.”

1 county, 1 advocate

Rachel Combest has a lot on her plate.

As the sole remaining victim advocate in Valencia County, Combest oversees 350 cases, assisting victims of everything from battery to homicide.

“It’s a scary situation for them to just be thrown into this,” Combest said.

Some victims can serve as witnesses, a tool for the DA to use in the prosecution, while others just need help getting back on their feet.

For each case, Combest is expected to explain the legal process, organize and maintain case files, direct the victims to resources, notify them of hearings and – if possible – go with them to court.

“I can’t be there for every single court hearing,” she said. “I try.”

District Attorney Lemuel Martinez is quick to admit the office could do a better job for victims, particularly in Valencia County.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “We’re kind of spreading the work.”

Martinez said his office puts a lot of responsibility on secretaries to set up witness interviews and communicate with victims – work advocates had previously handled.

When Combest first started, she was given a cellphone so victims could reach her anytime. That only lasted a couple of months.

“As a whole, I’m doing the best that I can,” Combest said.

Not too long ago, Martinez said, he had five victim advocates working under him.

After a 3.5 percent budget cut – over two or three years – only three remain, one for each county in his district.

“I don’t feel (having) one person in each office is doing a job that I want them to do,” Martinez said.

This year, he said he got some “wiggle room” after receiving $200,000 out of a requested million from the Legislature.

Martinez said he will have to see how the funds will be used after the first of the fiscal year, but he hopes to hire another victim advocate for Valencia and Sandoval counties. With a steady caseload of 232, Cibola County has managed with one victim advocate.

A hand to hold

Members of the support group say they needed more than court notifications, legal explanations and pamphlets.

“They felt alone,” Shirley said.

During their monthly rendezvous, the families get together to share a meal, vent frustrations with the legal system and talk about the loved ones they lost. Although they’ve known one another a few years at most, they laugh and cry together like family.

“I always say, it’s like the best group of people you never want to meet,” Eileen Williams says.

Unlike Combest and other court advocates, Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death advocates are not held to the standards of the court, have personal experience with the system and, with less than half the caseload, can do more for victims.

Shirley is “on call” and in constant communication with victims through text messages, phone calls and several home visits every month.

It also means holding a family’s hand – so to speak – through court hearings.

“It’s really hard,” Shirley said, calling the courtroom a “daunting” place for victims.

“This journey is very emotional. The court of law is very unemotional by choice and by process.”

When Williams’ brother, 21-year-old Charlie Davlin, was gunned down in 2014, she said she didn’t go back to work for seven months. Even simple things like taking a shower or getting out of bed seemed impossible.

“It’s exhausting emotionally and physically,” Williams said.

Diana Artiaga and her granddaughter Eileen Williams talk about the loss of Charlie Davlin, who was gunned down in 2014.

Meanwhile, Williams along with her mother, Denise Davlin, and grandma, Diana Artiaga, were thrown into a gantlet of complicated proceedings in tight courtrooms where they came face to face with the accused.

“There were so many questions,” Denise Davlin said. “Everything got so complicated – all the legal work you don’t understand.”

Davlin, who found out her son was dead through a voicemail from the Office of the Medical Investigator, said the family wasn’t even getting court notifications at the time.

That was before they stumbled upon the Resource Center’s website.

There they found the support group – and Shirley, who stood by their side in over 50 court hearings.

She can walk families through the process, tell them what to expect and advise them along the way, because she has been through the motions.

It was the beginning of summer 1999 when her son, Kevin Shirley, was gunned down in the East Mountains, along with two friends, in a triple homicide that sent shockwaves through the city and made national headlines.

Due to the exposure, Shirley said, her family was provided every resource available – something she now tries to bring to her own clients.

“It was very positive for us,” she said. “Most people’s experience is not like ours.”

Filling the gaps

Dolores Moreno, a volunteer victim advocate, works near construction on the new Victim Advocacy Resource Center at the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

In Bernalillo County’s 2nd Judicial District, where 25,000 cases pass through District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s office every year, 13 victim advocates bear the weight of 200 to 350 cases each.

“It’s just not feasible,” Victim Witness Director Leslie Ulibarri said.

Torrez took a trip last May to Pima County, Ariz., where District Attorney Barbara LaWall oversees 25 paid victim advocates along with up to 150 around-the-clock volunteers.

Now Torrez is mirroring his own district after LaWall’s, making moves to hire more advocates, pulling volunteers from the public and building a resource center just for victims.

“This is something we should’ve done years ago,” Ulibarri said.

Ulibarri said they plan to use some of the legislative funding to hire more advocates and started a program last year training volunteers, with no experience necessary, to help cushion the current system.

“Because we didn’t have the funding and we didn’t have the resources, we said ‘let’s reach out to the public,’ ” Ulibarri said.

She said that 12 trained volunteers are working for the office, while a second group of 10 are in training and that new submissions are coming in every day.

Incoming volunteers are given a background check and interview before they are trained at the DA’s Office. Volunteers are asked to do a minimum of 20 hours a month.

“Our goal is to make sure that we can give every victim the service they deserve,” Ulibarri said.

To that end, she said the Victim’s Resource Center will open this month.

Funded through the county and two federal grants, the center will offer victims privacy, comfort and access to resources right from within the DA’s office.

The Resource Center will house kiosks where victims of domestic violence can submit restraining orders, a lounge area just for victims so they are not seated beside defendants, and access to several nonprofit agencies, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Rape Crisis Center and the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death – where Shirley and other advocates will have a desk.

“When they invite you in, it’s a score,” Shirley said, looking forward to bringing her expertise into the busiest district in the state.

A second family

Just a year after 34-year-old Brenda Martinez was shot dead and left in the street, her sister Sandra Jaquez stood before a judge and Felix Contreras, Martinez’s killer.

“For one year, my mind has been thinking of what I could possibly say that can even give some insight as to what it is to live with the pain that comes with having a murdered loved one,” she said. “In the end, it is not my mind that can do so … it is my heart alone that can tell you that.”

Contreras showed no emotion as Jaquez read her victim impact statement. He had been sentenced to nearly 30 years in prison days before.

Jaquez had three words for the man who took her sister away: I forgive you.

“In doing so, I am not excusing your behavior, but I am stopping your behavior from destroying my heart,” she said.

In the courtroom sat Shirley, Susan Williams and the entire Davlin family.

“After the sentencing, I told Eileen outside, ‘You guys are stuck with us now,’ ” Jaquez said, flanked on either side by her father Jose and sister Dianna, during the support group a month later. “They’re more than friends and your own family.”

Long after their respective cases close and verdicts are handed down, the families of Los Lunas will continue to lean on one another and help others who walk through the door.

“The biggest value is those who have been through the system stay for a while and encourage the ones who are new,” Shirley said. “It takes the influx of new people to really keep it fresh.”

Out of the wreckage of tragedy, friendships have sprouted for many of them. The families now keep in touch, go out to eat, attend court hearings together and have become their own advocates.

“If it wasn’t for this group – our family would’ve been lost,” Jaquez said.

The resource center is once again trying to expand, hoping to open a support group with a victim advocate in Roswell.

The support group in Albuquerque, Torrez’s district, continues to grow as the homicide count rises – many of them unsolved. The need for victim advocates is showing no sign of slowing.

“You want the happy ending,” Shirley said. “This is reality.”

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