Unlike their colleagues elsewhere in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, they don’t carry guns, scour crime scenes for evidence or grill suspects on the witness stand.
The only weapon the 15 staffers in the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy wield is compassion. And for the victim of domestic violence, the devastated mother of a murdered child, or the terrified eyewitness to a brutal crime, that’s a potent weapon indeed.
"A victim does not know what to expect. What we try to do is address practical and emotional needs when navigating the halls of justice," said Pamela McCauley, the Victim-Witness Coordinator for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Our interest is solely on behalf of crime victims and survivors.”
On April 23, victims’ advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and crime survivors gathered for a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the agency, one of the first of its kind in the state of New Jersey. The event was held at the Leroy Smith Jr. Public Safety Building located at the Essex County court complex in Newark.
The ceremony coincided with the start of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and National Police Week. Last week, Maplewood resident and ECPO Victim-Witness Advocate Jason Delpeche was at the Maplewood Township Committee to accept the town's proclamation marking the week.
The Essex County office was founded a few years before state legislation came into effect in the mid-1980s creating victim-witness advocacy agencies in each of the rest of the state’s 21 county prosecutors’ offices. Before then, law enforcement’s emphasis was solely limited to capturing and successfully prosecuting offenders.
But that left a massive gap in the system — support for the people who were often broken, frightened or just plain bewildered in the wake of a crime.
When Armando Fontoura, the Essex County Sheriff, began his career in law enforcement with the Newark Police Department in 1967, crime victims and witnesses were largely left to their own devices. The best a rape victim could hope for, Fontoura recalled, was a ride home from the precinct after giving a statement.
"How we treated victims of crime was a shame,” Fontoura said.
Today, however, McCauley’s office assists up to 14,000 clients a year, handling matters like helping an eyewitness get financial help to relocate, keeping the family members of victims apprised of court proceedings, connecting survivors with counseling services and letting them know when a convicted criminal is due to be paroled.
In the process, the office sends out about 180,000 pieces of correspondence a year and maintains contact with clients long after a particular criminal has been jailed.
"We have long-term relationships with survivors of crime,” McCauley said.
Among those the office continues to help is Shalga Hightower, the mother of Iofemi Hightower, one of three young people murdered in a Newark schoolyard in August 2007.
Hightower, who spoke haltingly but clearly, told a powerful tale of her journey through grief and anger towards forgiveness for the men who claimed her college-bound daughter’s life as street cops and seasoned prosecutors alike looked on in respectful silence. The men and women of the prosecutor’s office, Hightower said, were right beside her as she made that journey.
"I have had tremendous support from the prosecutor’s office. I had a nervous breakdown, I had a nervous breakdown because my heart was torn out, and they were there with me,” she said, adding that Fontoura would frequently appear in court to greet her with a hug during the years-long prosecution.
"Victims-Witness showed me how you can rebuild your life after something like this....they have so much compassion.”
"You’re all like my family now because you’ve been here since the beginning,” Hightower added, identifying Fontoura, Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray and Chief of Detectives Anthony Ambrose by name.
That depth of connection with victims is now very much a part of the culture of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, a fact Murray illustrated with a telling anecdote. An investigator whom Murray said was as “rough hewn as anybody” working a child homicide a number of years ago was preparing to return a photo of the young victim to the family. The investigator had purchased a brand new picture frame for the photo, which Murray knew about only because she happened to see the investigator pull it from his desk drawer.
“It was not public, it was not intended for my eyes, it was not intended to be shared. I think that small gesture represents the office at its best.”
The Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy will be holding a free public seminar, “What to Expect After the Police Leave — A Guide to the Days After a Traumatic Event ,” on May 3 and again on May 10, from 9 am to 2 pm, on the 14th floor of the Leroy Smith Building, 50 West Market St., Newark. To sign up for the seminar or for more information, call 973-621-4687 or 973-621-4707 or visit www.njecpo.org.