Victim/witness coordinator will serve Clayton, four other area counties

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Brandi Lewin

Zach Herrmann

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

A new victim/witness coordinator began serving a multi-county area—including Clayton, Delaware, Buchanan, Jones and Benton counties—last month.

 

Brandi Lewin will fill the role, which Clayton County Attorney Zach Herrmann described as a liaison between county attorney offices and victims of a crime.

 

“We’re kind of focused on the defendant, more or less, and prosecuting,” he said of himself and fellow county attorneys. “The victim/witness coordinator reaches out to the victim and keeps them updated with everything, provides them with resources, gets them registered for different services, recommends counseling if they need that. It’s super victim-centered, making sure they are taken care of while we’re focusing on the justice part.”

 

Herrmann said notifying victims of these aspects is required by law. While some counties have their own victim/witness coordinators, others roll the duties into a secretary or legal assistant position. Clayton County has been doing the latter.

 

“Then, one of the deputies in Delaware County proposed the idea that maybe a county wouldn’t necessarily have the funding to hire their own victim/witness coordinator, but if we pooled together a multi-county thing, we could make it happen,” he said. “Email chains were started, and here we are.”

 

The collaborative effort is bound by a 28E agreement between the counties. In some cases, funding came from the county attorney’s office. In others, like Clayton, it came from the board of supervisors.

 

“Each county is contributing an equal amount, and then it’s up to that county to use Brandi as they see fit,” Herrmann explained. “The goal is to get the program started, get a good feel for it, and hopefully get some state funding when it becomes available in the next few years.”

 

Lewin’s background includes around five years in mental health and, most recently, six years in victim services. She’s had experience working with victims in each of the five participating counties and understands the dynamics of what individuals go through and how best to navigate the system.

 

“I truly understand what the system is like and what the challenges can be for a victim and what resources they could potentially want to utilize to assure a better end result as they start to heal,” Lewin shared. “We don’t want them to feel confused. The more I can speak to them and speak with the people who are working with them, like Zach, it gives an outlet that’s just there for them. There’s a lot of safety in that.”

 

Lewin said Clayton County has implemented a system where, following an incident, law enforcement fill out a basic information form so she can immediately contact the victim(s). The goal is for her to receive that paperwork the next business day. Lewin then starts to work on her own paperwork, which includes information about restitution, what the person’s rights as a crime victim are, case number details and a victim impact statement form. 

 

“We want people to understand they have an opportunity to talk about how the crime has impacted them overall. That’s important for all of us to see,” Lewin said.

 

In addition, Lewin asks what services the victim may need. That could include working on restitution or repayment of damages or referring them to local agencies like Riverview Center, in sex abuse cases, or Helping Services, if it relates to domestic violence. 

 

“If they have any questions on the legal process, I can also give case updates, like if Zach says we’re setting up a hearing for this date. I can offer my assistance to walk through that process or sit with them in court,” she said. “It’s making them understand I’m in their corner. It’s giving them the choices so they can make the best decisions for themselves.”

 

Herrmann said one of the most important roles of the victim/witness coordinator is to answer a victim’s biggest question: “What happens now?”

 

As a county attorney, he understands the legal system can work slowly. It can be at least two weeks from the time a crime was committed to the file landing on his desk.

 

“If it’s two weeks before it gets to my desk, in county attorney terms that’s not very long, but to a victim, that’s a lifetime,” Herrmann said. “So timeliness is really important—being able to talk to the victim within a couple days.”

 

“Unless you’ve gone through something horrible, and you’ve had to report a crime or be a witness to a crime, you’re not going to understand that,” Lewin noted. “I wouldn’t have known that before I started working in victim services.” 

 

Lewin said she likes to be realistic with victims, providing honest answers about the case time line and what the situation looks like.

 

“Then they don’t think someone is failing them,” she stressed. “That’s a big thing. If you don’t have that communication, I can understand why someone might think law enforcement or prosecution aren’t doing anything about this, when the reality is so much happens behind the scenes that’s not talked about during an investigation. It gives them an opportunity to stay in the loop and know they can call me if they have questions.”

 

She’s already making an impact. Herrmann said a victim recently shared a letter that said, “Thank you so much for allowing me to vent my frustration with this case. I’ve been having heart problems and the doctor has been telling me to relax.”

 

Along with her role as victim/witness coordinator, Lewin is also a key component of each county’s sexual assault response team (SART). Clayton County SART includes law enforcement, the county attorney, advocates from organizations like Riverview Center in Dubuque and SANE nurses from both the Elkader and Guttenberg hospitals who are specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners. Herrmann said the group meets monthly to coordinate and provide training.

 

“In all five of the counties I’m serving, I’m also working in the capacity of coordinating meetings and trainings and more of a community response to sexual assault that’s assuring it’s victim centered,” Lewin noted.

 

Since starting her position a month ago, Lewin has split time between all five counties, and is in Clayton County, at Herrmann’s office, each Wednesday. She’s always accessible via technology, but likes being visible.

 

“The more I can bounce around, the more people get to see me. Then, when they’re referring cases to me, they feel comfortable in doing so and can explain my role better,” she said.

 

Lewin feels it also increases collaboration between the counties and various agencies.

 

“A lot of times, crimes will travel between counties, so the more these partners get to know each other and meet, we can share resources and ideas and get on the same page and be aware of things that could trickle over,” she explained.

 

Lewin said she’s fortunate the counties have put such trust in her to build the program and create a multi-county response.

 

“The beauty of this is there’s a lot of room for growth and learning what works and what doesn’t. I think we’ve got a really big opportunity when we can work together,” she stated.

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