The purpose of the Burlington County Office of Victim Witness Advocacy (The Victim Witness Unit) is to ensure that the rights of crime victims and witnesses are protected and that their needs receive full attention. The staff is comprised of one coordinator, five victim advocates, and one secretary, who all serve as liaisons between the victim and the criminal justice system. The advocates work closely with assistant prosecutors and the law enforcement community to help victims understand the vital role they play in the criminal justice process. We are committed to serving the needs of crime victims and witnesses. Our primary goal is to provide victims with services and support to help them cope with the aftermath of victimization, while trying to make their participation in the criminal justice system less difficult and burdensome.
Our services respond to a diversity of needs, providing answers and explanations to a system that victims and witnesses often find confusing.
In 2016, the Victim Witness Unit reached out to over 3,500 new crime victims, while providing services on more than 20,000 different occasions to each new victim and continued services to victims and witnesses whose cases were originally processed prior to 2016. The range of referrals that our program provides extends to the non-profit sector, law enforcement, and state and federal government.
A significant amount of written correspondence is mailed out daily by the Unit secretary and the advocates. In 2016, approximately 35,000 case status letters were mailed out to victims and witnesses of crime. The VINE system, along with assistance from victim advocates, ensured that over 1,250 notifications were mailed to victims advising them about the parole status or release of a violent offender from the New Jersey Department of Corrections and the Burlington County Jail.
Advocates frequently escort victims and their families to court, offering support and a caring ear for case status hearings and trials. The staff is also actively involved with any homicide investigation that occurs within Burlington County. The Victim Witness Unit works closely with the BCPO Major Crimes Unit to provide immediate service to the families of homicide victims.
In order to provide these services an advocate is contacted at the time of the crime and will respond to the local police department or hospital to aid surviving family members. In those circumstances where immediate outreach is problematic, the assigned advocate will contact the family within 24 hours after the homicide. This enables the advocate to start a working relationship with the family while offering services from the Victims of Crime Compensation Office and other agencies.
On a daily basis the advocates also bear witness to the great strength and perseverance that crime victims and victim survivors display as they navigate through the criminal justice system. In recognition of this journey our Office annually sponsors three National Crime Victims’ Rights Week events. The theme for 2016, “Serving Victims, Building Trust, Restoring Hope” reflected the goals the Victim Witness Unit strived each day to achieve while interacting with crime victims and their families as they are thrust into a system that they never chose to become a part of. The mission of the Victim Witness Unit involves serving victims from the very start, until the very end of the court process and beyond; while helping to build their trust in the law enforcement community by our actions, and restoring hope for their future of healing and moving in a positive direction in their lives.
During the week of April 10th – April 16th, the Victim Witness Unit Staff and others from the BCPO joined our state and the nation in recognizing the struggles and triumphs of the Crime Victims’ Rights Movement.
Our well-attended Annual Crime Victims’ Rights Week breakfast was held on April 13, 2016 at The Westin Hotel in Mount Laurel. Local politicians, members of the law enforcement community, victims and their families all came together to honor the journey of crime victims. One of the speakers was a victim survivor whose brother, a dedicated police officer, was killed by his wife several years ago. She provided inspiration and hope and rejuvenated the spirits of all who heard her.
The Victim Witness Unit continued its newest tradition for Crime Victims’ Rights Week which was the “Stride for Survivors” 5K Fun Run/Walk co-sponsored with the Burlington County Sheriff’s Department, CONTACT of Burlington County and New Jersey State Police. It was held at the Historic Smithville Park in Eastampton on April 17 and was very successful again, with more than 200 participants. There were information tables for many social service and law enforcement agencies, and participants received a T-shirt and refreshments.
Immediately following The Stride, the Victim Witness Unit held its Annual Candlelight Vigil at the same venue, and it was well-attended by some Stride participants, as well as many family members of victims from homicide cases. The brief, yet powerful vigil gives all in attendance the opportunity to light a candle in memory and reverence to the loss of their loved ones and experience fellowship with other concerned individuals. About 175 people attended and it’s a valuable tradition to all of us, and the families we serve.
The Victim Witness Unit remains dedicated to victims and witnesses of crime. We acknowledge the struggles of crime victims and we strive to continue to help reduce the impact of crime by empowering victims and advocating for their rights. We look forward to continuing to provide these services to victims and the community.