Compassion and consolation are hands-on jobs for victims advocates under most circumstances, but with COVID-19 precautions the local advocates who used to hug to show empathy now have to keep their distance.
Sarah Parris and Rhetta Smith are victims advocates for the 8th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, and their job is to act as a resource for victims and families who are seeking justice for a crime. While prosecutors take a case to trial, victims advocates work with the family to keep them informed of hearing dates, the defendant’s status and to connect them with resources they might need.
But just as important as managing the behind-the-scenes work is being with families as they go to trial, to comfort them when they face emotional moments in court. In a homicide trial, for instance, descriptions of a slaying can be graphic and can prove deeply upsetting for families to hear.
“A huge part of our job is to comfort someone, and having to stay six feet away from someone, the most you can do when they’re crying is hand them a tissue,” Smith said.
Smith worked as a victims advocate in the state’s first jury trial following initial pandemic closures. In this Laurens County murder trial, she said about 15 members of the victim’s family were involved with the case.
“Emotions are super high, and a lot of times you’d like to give them a pat on the shoulder or back, but you couldn’t,” she said.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Beatty ordered the suspension of in-person court hearings twice, once in mid-March 2020 and again in early January. Court staff members have been able to move forward with some hearings virtually, but judges have been hesitant to hear any serious trials this way, for many reasons, Smith said.
The slowdown of hearings has meant a sharp increase in caseload for attorneys. Currently, most attorneys in the 8th Circuit are shouldering about 900 cases each across six attorneys. Those same cases are also shared by the circuit’s two victim advocates.
“For every victim, their case is the most important,” Smith said.
The ongoing pandemic and online hearings had added a new dimension to their job, as they help people navigate apps and websites to tune in to online hearings. Coordinating in-person meetings in the office can be a challenge, given everyone’s work schedules as well.
On any given day, their list of tasks can vary widely — preparing for court, spending hours on the phone with families, reading and getting familiar with the cases they’re working on.
“When you walk in, your phone is ringing,” Smith said.
The job doesn’t end when they leave the office, either. Many of the people they work with have their cellphone numbers and are encouraged to call when they need help.
“It never ends, and a lot of times you can’t not take the phone call,” Parris said, “because there could be someone vulnerable on the other end.”
A partnership between the state Attorney General’s office and the state Department of Corrections recently sparked improvements to the state’s Victim Information and Notification Everyday system, or SC-VINE. Through a website or app, victims can stay informed about the status of their case and of the defendant. Smith said it can take a weight off some families’ shoulders knowing they can go shopping without running into the defendant in their case, by first checking SC-VINE to know the defendant is still in custody.
“Our victims advocates do a great job, but they’re only human,” said Bryan King, 8th Circuit communications director. “Until we have more money to hire more staff, they are being asked to do a superhuman task.”
A report from the state Commission on Prosecution Coordination said in fiscal year 2020, the 8th Circuit ranked second-lowest of the state’s 16 circuits in terms of per-warrant funding from the counties it serves — $99 per warrant. From Abbeville, Greenwood, Laurens and Newberry counties, the 8th Circuit Solicitor’s Office received about as much in total funding in 2020as the 3rd Circuit did, which serves Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon and Marlboro counties.
“We just do what we have to do to make it work,” Parris said. “You don’t ever have to do anything alone, that’s the good thing.”
Parris and Smith work closely together, along with the other staff at the solicitor’s office. The cooperation and closeness of their work, Parris said, is what makes their sometimes frenetic jobs a little easier.