Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

Currently: 72° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

‘Are you all right?’

The employees of Victim Services see the worst of humanity in an endless fight for those left behind

Image

Michael Park

She got a black eye. It swelled bad after the first few punches. He noticed when he had her on the ground, choking her. He noticed the fat swell and he pulled back to look. Then he let go of her neck, and started crying. Started saying, “I love you. I love you.”

“And what happened next?” Regina Porter is watching the woman write. Porter cannot tell her what to say about getting beaten, cannot hint at what information might make a judge approve this application for a restraining order. But she can help spell (“put an ‘E’ on the end of that chok”). She can coax. She can hand out tissue. “What happened after he let go?”

He pulled the Bowie knife back too. Then he started begging—don’t call the cops. Pllllease don’t call the cops. He has kids with someone else. The woman worried about those kids, what would happen to them. She waited a few days, then called police. Her neck still had knife marks. He was in jail when she caught a bus to the Metro Victim Services office, and sat down with Porter.

It’s been violent for the past year, the woman says. She hid all her knives.

“This restraining order is good for 30 days.” Porter recites the script from memory. “Once it’s expired, you’ll get a court date. If you like, we will come to court with you on that date.”

The woman starts to cry. The other day, she tells Porter, she screamed at a total stranger. She ran into rage so quick she scared herself.

“I am so, so angry,” she says, crying hard but carefully blotting her eye. “I hate this. I hate it. So angry. No trust.”

Porter gets out more paperwork. They will apply for free crime-victim counseling. The woman will write out her story again. She’ll fill in the blanks: address, income, severity of injury, signature. Word by word, Porter will show her how to ask for help.

In the end, Metro’s massive police operation comes down to just one thing: the bad guy. Catching him and arresting him. Law and enforcement. It’s a set system, from handcuffs to parole, that kicks into motion the moment a criminal is caught.

There is no set system, however, for the other half of the crime equation: victims. For them, a crime can unfurl into months of confusion and complication: navigating the court system, dealing with detectives and lawyers, dealing with injuries, filing restraining orders, getting new housing or emergency shelter—to say nothing of the psychological costs, the fear and the rage and everything between.

This is where Victim Services comes in. While most of Metro churns on bad guys, one small section of the department works only on helping victims. They’re civilian employees with various backgrounds, in social work or therapy or just personal experience. They’re the kind of people you don’t know about until you need them. They’re people who spend their days helping a battery victim find ways to pay for that massive jaw surgery, or visiting a sex-assault victim in the hospital, or drawing with children while their father is interrogated by homicide detectives. One task at a time, their work paints a picture of crime in Southern Nevada, just from a different angle. At Victim Services, it’s all aftermath—the largely invisible and never-ending army of people who need help.

“Did you have something else happen, honey?”

There’s a stack of yellow papers three inches thick on Penny Priest’s desk. They’re carbon-copy tear-outs, sent to Victim Services by officers after every domestic violence call. Each sheet has the basics—the address, the people involved and a small narrative, written by the cop:

Boyfriend hits girlfriend on the back of the head with pipe. Mom and daughter fistfight spills out into street. Sister pours boiling water on sister. Boyfriend throws baby to the ground. Husband kicks wife in face over custody dispute. Boyfriend strangles girlfriend at bus stop. Wife shows up at hospital with unlikely explanation for how she broke all her teeth.

Priest works through the stack. She calls the victim of every incident, introduces herself, explains she works for Victim Services, and opens with one question:

“Are you all right?”

She helps figure out court dates and whether boyfriends are still behind bars. She gives out phone numbers and explains what happens after an arrest, which detectives are on the case. She discusses restraining orders and jail visits and witness fees if you have to miss work to testify. Beyond practicalities, she’s prodding to see if someone needs more help—counseling or shelter or more.

Plenty of people, however, are just fine. In fact, they want to drop the charges. But that’s the nature of domestic violence, the kind of pattern Victim Services tries to point out.

“You don’t sound too happy, though. Is there anything we can help you with?”

Priest is one of two part-time Victim Services staff. There are four full-timers. In May, they helped 945 people—three quarters of whom were domestic-violence victims.

Just over one year ago, Metro started doing domestic-violence “lethality assessments.” Officers who respond to these calls now ask victims a series of questions designed to identify those at the greatest risk of being killed. (“Have you been choked?” “Does your partner own a firearm?”) High-risk victims are told as much on the spot, then offered immediate assistance. Those who do not want help in the moment are contacted the next day by Victim Services staff who, precisely because they are not police, sometimes have better luck.

And every crime victim—not just those involved in domestic violence—gets an information guide. A sheet that lists phone numbers, including Victim Services’ main line. It rings all day long. Staff members take turns answering.

Elynne Greene, Victim Services supervisor, takes a call from a man facing six months of reconstructive dental surgery after an assault. As soon as Greene hangs up, a woman calls wanting to know about visa applications for victims of human trafficking—they talk for some time. Then a third call comes in, and someone else grabs it.

This is a job you take home. And sometimes you have to go home early, Greene says, when tough cases “leave you feeling raw.”

“It does take its toll,” she said. “You become acutely aware of the dark side of this community.”

Worse, there are people you cannot help, not as much as you’d like to or not at all. And this overwhelm is its own kind of nightmare for people like Greene, who says she works with victims because it’s her passion. “This is not just a job. It’s not just a paycheck. If that was all, you wouldn’t last.”

Ron Cornell was standing 50 feet from his son. “I made him a promise that night that his death wasn’t in vain, and that I was going to get him justice. And that’s what I did. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed.”

Cornell’s son, Joey, was 16 when he was killed in 1998. Joey was driving home when a man chased down his car, and fired. For the next two years, Cornell called Greene no less than three times a week. He was often frustrated with the investigation. He had his own leads, his own idea about where the suspect may have fled. He wanted his son’s case to move faster, for the police to be as consumed with the death as he was—and when that didn’t happen, Cornell wanted to yell at someone. Greene took his calls when no one else would, each angry session helping Cornell feel, no doubt, like he was doing something to help the case. Each call, whether he knew it or not, helping him move out of rage, towards some kind of healing.

“She made us feel like our case was important,” Cornell said.

Some victims wait out justice for years. It’s another part of the trauma, Greene says. In a city with one murder every few days, and hundreds of other crimes in between, a man like Cornell can start to feel buried by the system.

Two years after Joey’s death, Cornell got an early morning call from Greene. The suspect had been arrested in New York. This was just the beginning. For the next five years and six months, exactly, Joey’s murderer was in and out of court: extradition hearings, petty arguments, preliminary hearings.

And Cornell was still on the phone, regularly, with Greene. You don’t know how slow the system grinds, he says, until you’re in it.

The man who shot Joey was convicted of second-degree murder in 2006. Today, Greene calls Cornell when the relatives and friends of murder victims need someone to talk to. Cornell says he tells victims about the court system, the process of hearings and trials, the fact that things happen very, very slowly.

“Victims have absolutely no clue in the world what’s going to take place,” Cornell said, “until they are thrown straight into the system.”

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy