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Spenser Heaps, KSL

District attorney launches new division to better help crime victims

By Annie Knox, KSL | Posted - Feb. 27, 2020 at 6:26 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County’s top law enforcer says he recognizes that a conviction in the criminal justice system is just one step toward healing for those who have survived violent crimes.

That’s why Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill says he is seeking to better inform victims of where their cases stand and connect each person who comes forward to services like counseling, even if his deputies decide not to file charges and take the case to court.

A new victim services arm within Gill’s office has begun guiding those efforts, he announced Thursday in a news conference at his Salt Lake office. The division centralizes about 40 social workers, victim advocates and others who have long supported Utahns seeking to hold their abusers to account.

“If you come through that doorway, then we’re going to be committed to helping you out,” Gill said.

In the past, a person who came forward as a victim was often handed a list of agencies they could call, but many didn’t know how to navigate the system and failed to connect with the services they may need. After initial conversations with law enforcers, many went months without hearing any updates on their cases. Some vanished altogether.

As part of the new push, Gill’s employees have begun scheduling new appointments before a person leaves their office.

Those who have survived what the office deems a violent offense are eligible for the help, and a person’s immigration status won’t bar them from assistance.

“While it is important that we hold offenders accountable as public prosecutors, we understand and we know that a conviction may not be the final arbitrator of what it means to have justice for a victim,” Gill said. “If we successfully prosecute a case or we don’t — or if we are able to file charges or we decline one — the underlying trauma has not ceased to exist.”

The newly formed division encompasses the office’s counseling unit, its victim advocates and the Salt Lake County Children’s Justice Center. It will involve case workers and victim advocates from an early stage, making sure they take part in initial reviews of criminal cases so they can figure out how best to help victims and their families from the start, Gill said.

“How you are treated along the way really matters,” added Susanne Mitchell, the manager of the new division and the longtime director of the Children’s Justice Center. “Support doesn’t stop when the case ends. We’re here to help.”

That continuous help could look like educational or job training long after a case is resolved, added Blake Nakamura, Gill’s chief deputy in the criminal division. For about three dozen children who have suffered abuse, a planned weeklong sleepaway camp in the Uintas will help them recover from the trauma, he added.

A handful of new employees have been hired to help staff the Victim Support Services Division, which has come together over several years and with $1.5 million in grants. It is separate from the investigative, criminal and civil units in Gill’s office.

“The cost is actually minimal,” Gill said, “in the sense of we’re taking different elements within our organization, we’re bringing them together.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson cheered the announcement, telling reporters it fits with her priority of combating domestic and sexual violence.

“We know that this is not a private matter, that it is a serious public health issue in our community, and that it cannot be ignored,” Wilson said.

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Annie Knox

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