Victim assistance coordinators important support for victim families

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal

When victim rights advocate Carolyn Clayton’s daughter was murdered in 1986, she had no idea the road that lay ahead.
In July 1986, 18-year-old Amy Clayton didn’t return home after her regular evening run.
After extensive overnight searches, the next morning Carolyn and Joe Clayton were informed their daughter’s body had been found. She had been raped and stabbed repeatedly.
Randy Bevill was tried, convicted and sentenced to death on capital murder charges in 1987, but the conviction was reversed on appeal. He again was tried and convicted on capital murder charges in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender, based on two burglary convictions in Pontotoc County.
Carolyn Clayton’s odyssey through the justice system during the investigation, arrest and trial of her daughter’s killer gave her an unwelcome inside look at the justice system from a victim’s perspective.
It seemed all the rights belonged to the suspect, and no attention was paid to the survivors of crime, whether a homicide victim’s family or the victims themselves – in such cases as rape, domestic violence, assault, robbery, theft and others.
In 1987, Clayton helped found Survival Inc. in Saltillo to help other victims of crime.
“When our daughter was murdered in 1986, we lived in Tupelo, and there were no laws on the books defining victims’ rights,” Clayton said. “Even though law enforcement and prosecutors were kind, the media became our source of information.”
Out of that need to stay informed about the case, Clayton and a grassroots group of individuals helped send a 10-bill package to the state Legislature in 1986. In 1987, seven of those bills passed, she said.
“Now every district attorney in the state has to have a victim assistance officer in their office to make sure victims are kept informed,” Clayton said.
For Circuit Court District 1, Linda White and Jimmie Hicks serve as victim assistance coordinators with District Attorney Trent Kelly.
White, who works in Alcorn, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties, last week received the Amy Clayton Victims’ Services Award from the Mississippians for Crime Victims Rights at ceremonies in Jackson held in recognition of National Crime Victims’ Week.
Victim assistance coordinators are charged with informing victims of their rights, keeping them informed of progress of the case, helping with social service needs, letting them know of financial assistance available and much more. The award goes to an individual who goes above and beyond the requirements of the job.
“I was so honored to receive this award,” White said. “We don’t ever do anything on a major case without meeting with family members. I help them understand what happens in the judicial process, all the different kinds of court actions that take place long before the trial, and why it can take so long for a case to come to trial. And I sit with them in the courtroom during the trial.”
Services through the district attorney’s office usually begin after the case is indicted by the grand jury, which may be months after the crime.
The team at Survival Inc. provides services as soon as possible to victims, including counseling services, support groups, mourning services, victim impact statements, memorial services, newsletters and much more.
“We provide emotional support, counseling for family members, crime scene cleanup, adapt our services to assist them with whatever needs they have,” Clayton said. “We serve adults and children. For kids a lot of times after a crime there’s not much fun at home for little ones, so our KAST – Kids Are Survivors Too – program provides a day of fun for them.”
Founded in Grenada as a more central location for the grassroots victims group that started out together, Survival Inc. now serves 34 counties and collaborates with other groups including Mourning After in Monroe County, Family Crisis Center in Oxford and Our House in Greenville.
“We’re really proud of Linda (White), Jimmie Hicks and the work of all those who support survivors of crime,” said DA Kelly. “We include S.A.F.E. Inc., Family Resource Center and others in that network who reach out to survivors and do things we can’t do. It can be intimidating and traumatic and it helps victims a lot to have someone with them through the process.”
Corinth Police Chief David Lancaster has tried for a couple of years to bring a victim assistance coordinator on board in his department by submitting victim assistance grant applications, but so far has been unsuccessful in receiving funding.
“A crime happens today, but it may be a year before the case goes to trial,” Lancaster said. “I’d like us to be able to fill the void for the victims before it goes to the DA’s office. Many cases don’t even go to the DA, like domestic violence. We’re responsible for letting the victim know when a suspect is released from jail, and a victim assistance coordinator would help us with things like that.”
A person who has never been a victim of crime – especially homicide – doesn’t begin to understand how it impacts every area of your life, Clayton said.
“It’s is like being sucked into a black hole, and when you come out of the darkness you reach back to the new ones (victims),” she said. “We become a family, supporting each other.”
lena.mitchell@journalinc.com