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Hilliard hired a full-time victim advocate. But what do victim advocates do?

 Cindi Newsome
City of Hilliard
Cindi Newsome is the new full-time victim advocate in the city of Hilliard.

The city of Hilliard recently hired its first full-time victim advocate to work with victims of crimes going through the legal system in more than a dozen local courts.

Cynthia Newsome said the job is a hybrid of legal and social work.

“I’m explaining the court system, talking to (victims) about protection orders, but also I do safety planning and give community resources,” Newsome said.

Newsome has been contracting as a victim advocate in Hilliard and other communities since 2019 and was recently hired as a full-time employee by the city. She helps victims of crimes such as domestic violence, assault, menacing and stalking as they navigate the legal process. Working in more than a dozen area courts, she has handled as many as 28 cases in one day, though most days aren’t quite that busy.

Just as defendants have defense attorneys to make sure their rights are upheld, it’s important for victims to have someone to support them, Newsome said.

“Court is crazy and chaotic on a good day. Trying to navigate that system without knowing where you’re going, who you’re talking to, what the next steps are can be incredibly daunting,” she said.

While Hilliard isn’t Newsome’s busiest city, Law Director Dawn Steele wanted to bring her on full-time to ensure services would be available to crime victims.

In 2021, Newsome handled 560 cases in Hilliard, Grove City, Dublin, Grandview Heights, Obetz and Reynoldsburg, according to data from the city of Hilliard. As of August 2022, she had handled 590 cases that year in those same communities.

“She still will continue to provide services for those nine suburbs, but it provides all of those suburbs with the stability of a qualified person who will stay in that position long term. The victims of crime will have that same contact person,” Steele said.

She said while it didn’t make sense for every small community to have a full-time victim advocate on staff, by pooling their resources, they all benefit. Hilliard will pay Newsome’s $32,000 benefits package while contracts with other jurisdictions will cover the rest of her $70,000 salary. The city also hopes to get grant money now that Newsome is on staff.

"Trying to navigate that system without knowing where you’re going, who you’re talking to, what the next steps are can be incredibly daunting.”

Victims' rights

Hilliard hiring a full-time victim advocate is another step in the ever-changing landscape of victims’ rights. It’s not exactly a new concept – victims' rights have existed since the '80s and '90s – but they haven't always been enforced.

The Columbus City Attorney’s Office has had victim advocates since the inception of its domestic violence and stalking unit in the 1990s, said Julienne Long, an advocate coordinator.

The biggest changes since then have been the way advocates communicate with victims – they text now – and that the job has become more professional.

“You know, in the nineties it was like ‘well, you’re a woman. You’re kind. Can you talk to this person?’ But we really believe that our advocates should have college degrees. We think the critical thinking needs to be there to provide the best advocacy possible,” Long said.

The city has 20 victim advocates. Most hold degrees in criminology, women’s studies, psychology or forensic psychology.

Each advocate may work on 16 to 25 misdemeanor cases a day. They act as liaisons between victims and prosecutors – which means they need to know the law.

Unlike Newsome, Long doesn’t consider the job to be too much like social work.

“We aren’t social workers. We don’t counsel. We’re providing advocacy. But a lot of that means us understanding the justice system so that we can have a good conversation with the prosecutor,” she said.

What hasn’t changed much in 20+ years is the system and how it treats victims, Long said.

Victims still face barriers that many advocates are working to bring down.

House Bill 343

The nonprofit Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center (OCVJC) enforces victim rights in court by providing legal representation.

Legal Director Elizabeth Well said victims are not always aware of their rights.

“A lot of times there’s just an assumption when you’re a victim of crime, if you haven’t had any interaction with the criminal justice process before, that you know any rights that you may have or any role that you may be entitled to is just going to be protected and you’re not going to have to ask for your rights, which is actually not the case,” Well said. “Some of our constitutional and statutory rights, in fact, rights that are very important here in Ohio, are upon request.”

Victims will have a better idea of their rights when Ohio’s House Bill 343 goes into effect on April 6. The one-page constitutional amendment reinforces Ohio's current victims' rights law, known as Marsy’s Law, that was passed by about 83 percent of Ohio voters in November 2017.

Marsy’s Law guarantees fair and respectful treatment of victims, and says that victims can be notified of legal proceedings involving the crime against them or if the accused offender is released or escapes from jail, among other rights.

HB 343 requires that law enforcement distribute information about those rights to victims during their first contact – which wasn’t compulsory before.

The bill, which Well and OCVJC helped write, also gives crime victims more rights to privacy and makes restitution for crimes mandatory, meaning that if a victim can prove she suffered financial loss, the court must require that the defendant repay her.

“Some of our constitutional and statutory rights, in fact, rights that are very important here in Ohio, are upon request.”

As for newly full-time Newsome, she isn’t a fan of the attention her new status has garnered, but she and Steele are excited to spread the word that resources are available for victims of crimes, especially when it comes to domestic violence and assault.

They encourage anyone who feels stuck and has been a victim to reach out to their local law enforcement or a victim advocate.

“Anybody that can realize that there’s resources available – if this media attention can get them to realize it, and it just helps one person, then as much as Cindi hates doing these interviews, it’s worth it,” Steele said.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.