By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers
“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups — the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”
That’s the introduction to the popular television series “Law and Order.” In the real courtrooms of America, where lives play out, it’s important that many other parties are also represented. Where lawyers, juries and judges cannot fill in the blanks, the courtrooms of Curry and Roosevelt counties have court advocates.
There are nearly 40 advocates in the two counties that work in the best interests of children or adults who are the victims of countless types of crimes or abuse. One type is a volunteer who works with children called a court appointed special advocate, or a CASA. The other is a paid position within the 9th Judicial District called a victim’s advocate.
Their methods may differ, from their duties before the trial to their duties after a trial. In each case, supervisors say the advocates act as a type of liaison to the judicial process.
“What the judges want are for the CASA volunteers to be the eyes and ears for the court,” said Marsha Gilliland, the executive director of CASA for Curry and Roosevelt counties. “We’re to be neutral. We’re not to take a specific direction, but we are to take forward the wishes of a child, relay that to a judge, done through a written report as well as testimony.”
These are some of their stories, starting with Christopher Davis, an airman at Cannon Air Force Base.
“I was looking for some volunteer opportunities when I came to the base,” Davis said. “This was a natural choice for me. There were so many opportunities to volunteer, but this was one I felt good about.”
Davis went through the CASA process, which includes a background check, interviews, a 30-hour training program and about six hours of court observation time, before he was given a case.
Advocates do not disclose exact details of their trials, but Davis said one case deals with a young child, and he said he can sometimes relate. He went through a childhood that included moves to several different family members and children’s homes.
“I never really got to stay in one place until I was 8 years old,” Davis said. “There is stuff there where I can totally relate.”
In a typical case, Davis he’ll be in a courtroom for less than an hour and testify for five minutes. Gilliland said by that point, advocates have probably put in 30 to 60 hours of interviews and reports, depending on the severity of the incidents and how many children, relatives or friends are involved.
“We interview all parties involved,” Gilliland said, “including teachers, counselors, parents, grandparents.
“We bring it back to the child’s perspective. We’re not the judge of anybody. They have a lot of people in their lives … who don’t want anybody else in their business. We try to put in perspective that we’re looking out for the best interest of children.”
District Attorney Matt Chandler voices a similar goal for the four victim advocates who work in the 9th Judicial District, three in Clovis and one in Portales. Their duties are slightly different.
“The primary function is to make (the court process) as comfortable as possible for the victim,” Chandler said. “Without the victim advocate’s assistance, it would be difficult to go forward in many cases. Our victim advocates develop a real rapport and they set up meetings with our prosecutor and act as a true liaison.”
Many victims of violent crime know their attacker. Without the victim advocate, Chandler said the chance is increased that a victim won’t go forward with prosecuting a crime, and a cycle of violence will continue.
“It’s like a clock,” Chandler said. “The 12 o’clock hour is where the violence starts. The 2 or 3 hour is where the person realizes the abuse is wrong.
“At about the 6 or 7 o’clock hour, there becomes this point of forgiveness. They welcome the person back, and in the 10 o’clock hour the arguments start again.”
If the clock reaches 12 again, Chandler said the violence almost always becomes worse. Instead, a victim advocate helps with procedures like setting up orders against their perpetrators, applying for compensation through victims’ funds and preparing an impact statement for a judge or jury.
Often, the advocate will also work with friends and family also affected by the crime.
There are two big differences with the victim advocates and the CASA. The first is the level of involvement in any actual trial. A CASA acts as a witness, while a victim advocate doesn’t work on an investigation.
The other difference is the commitment afterwards. Chandler said a victim advocate’s work could continue years after a trial has concluded.
“As long as that victim continues to need services from our office, our victim advocate provides it,” he said.
The CASA, however, is required to make a clean break, even if they’re less than satisfied with the trial’s end result.
“They have to detach from that case and that child,” Gilliland said. “They have no more legal responsibilities.”
An advocate may never have a high profile in fictional legal shows that have dominance in television ratings, but each advocate knows their prominence in the judicial process will help change many lives along the way.
“It takes some time and sometimes it takes some courage,” Davis said, “because you’re talking to people you normally wouldn’t talk to. But it brings a joy to help kids.”
It’s the reason Lavonn Guthals of Clovis became a CASA as well. Guthals, a retired social worker, knows the volunteer work she and others do can help judges and social workers who have heavy caseloads.
“I don’t think (a CASA) does their work, but it gives them another pair of eyes and another pair of ears,” Guthals said. “I don’t think of it as behind the scenes at all.”