Las Cruces' Victims Assistance Programs help people pick up the pieces after a crime.
By Jeff Berg
A relatively new concept on the national level, Victims Assistance Programs (VAP) are now becoming more commonplace, as nearly 250 police departments across the country sponsor and support such programs. The city of Las Cruces was the first New Mexico community to sponsor a Victims Assistance Program, first doing so in 1993. That program is now part of the National Organization of Victims' Advocates (NOVA), which is based in Virginia.
The Las Cruces Police Department's VAP Program Coordinator is Sylvia Hall, who has been with the program almost since its inception. A Tucson native, she came to Las Cruces via Great Falls, Mont., when she enrolled at New Mexico State University.
In fact, Hall wasn't even aware of victims assistance programs until she heard a lecture by NMSU's Dr. Joan Crowley. It was that talk that changed the entire direction of Hall's life.
"This was a pilot program then, and became a model program in 1997," Hall says. "I have helped establish five other VAP units in New Mexico since then."
Hall's demeanor is clear, firm and honest. She takes her job seriously and has made huge advances in the program, which has expanded to a staff of six over the years. They have certainly outgrown their tiny office space at the Las Cruces Police Station, which of course could strike one as bittersweet. They have a small satellite office at the city Weed and Seed Program, located in the city's Mesquite District. Weed and Seed is another city program, this one designed to help at-risk youth who may be leaning toward such unsavory lifestyles as gang membership.
Although Hall's work consumes most of her waking hours (all advocates take several 24/7 on-call shifts each month), she does find time for reading and working on her home and garden. She is very involved in her church, the Potter's House Christian Center, which in turn has become part of the community-involvement program. Hall also volunteers that she enjoys art–drawing landscapes, portraits and still lifes. "I use many different mediums–tempura, ink, charcoal, oil. I was featured in a show a while back that had nine of my pieces."
Her son, Travis Rogers, is a combat engineer in the US Marine Corps, currently stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He is slated to be posted to Iraq in March, giving Sylvia Hall one more thing to worry about.
The Las Cruces Victims Assistance Program is a well-trained group of advocates who responded to 1,636 referrals in 2005. Hall indicates that business was just as brisk last year. It falls under the auspices of the Las Cruces Police Department, and directly under the supervision of Deputy Chief of Police Richard Parra.
Much of the advocacy involves helping victims of domestic violence, but the VAP is not limited to that. The advocates respond to any request by a police officer to a crime scene, or afterward, and also help the prey of 15 enumerated crimes, ranging from murder to sexual assault. Children are also covered by the VAP.
"We are very busy," Hall says, "but we only assist with crimes against a person. That contact can be achieved by us being on the scene, by letter, phone or from a walk-in referral.
"There are several areas in which we can help," she adds. "It can be as crisis intervention or at the scene of a crime."
In order for VAP to assist at a crime scene, a police officer must request the presence of a VAP advocate. At that time the crime victim is given an information card for VAP, a packet of information–geared to domestic-violence incidents, but also covering other crimes such as stalking (which is on the upsurge, too)–along with a case number and the officer's name.
As most people know, domestic violence remains a huge issue in New Mexico and throughout the country. Figures for 2004 of reported cases of domestic violence show an increase in cases in New Mexico, with 26,940 cases that were investigated by law-enforcement officials. That's a rate of just over 15 per 1,000 residents.
"Partner stalking is also a big issue in Las Cruces," Hall says. "There are a lot of violent people who just don't want to let go of power and control over the victim. They use intimidation, constant contact, pleading and threats."
Within the information packet given to each of the VAP clients is a pamphlet called a Stalking Critical Incident Diary. It allows for a victim to note suspect information, details of contact incidents and some of the various forms of stalking. Among them are sending love notes or hate notes, along with "placing or delivering an unwanted object(s)," with examples given such as "red bows, stuffed animals or strange or unusual items such as a coyote head or false teeth." The brochure also notes that Gavin de Becker, an expert on celebrity stalking cases, has a collection of more than 300,000 gifts and letters "given" to stalking victims. These so-called gifts range from half-eaten candy to body parts.
Stalking and domestic violence have remained such a core issue in the area that the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Department has recently introduced a new resource for victims, called Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE). It can be reached by calling a toll-free number (866-314-3662). After registering with VINE, the victim of one of these crimes can then call to find out whether an offender is in jail, and is also offered custody and court date information. The caller can also safely leave a phone number where she can be reached automatically if the wrongdoer has been released, transfers or even escapes. It is noted several times on the brochure that VINE should not be person's sole method of precaution to avoid these social miscreants, however.
Some of the services offered to a crime victim by VAP include information about the availability of financial assistance through the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission, referrals to various social-service organizations, medical and health facilities and a primer about the criminal-justice system. Assistance with Family Protection Orders is also available. VAP advocates are also called upon as professional witnesses for court cases.
Las Cruces is not exactly a safe haven when it comes to crime. FBI crime figures for 2004 show numbers that the local of chamber of commerce or your friendly Realtor trying to persuade another retiree to come here would probably not share.
The FBI data show that in crimes per 100,000 people, Las Cruces (which only has about 85,000 people anyway) lags slightly behind the national average in murder, 6.2 to 6.9. But the city is almost 400 percent higher than average in forcible rape, with 119.15 cases per 100,000 being reported in 2004, while the national average was 32.2. Crimes such as robbery and aggravated assault were close to the national averages, but burglary stats were 930 per 100,000 (compared to 814) and larceny was 3,666 (versus 2,734). It also looks like it might be best if you stay in your car (but don't drive around here!), as vehicle thefts were well below the national average, 304 versus 526. El Paso's claim of being a safe city certainly rings true, as it beats Las Cruces in every category except vehicle theft. Please note, of course, that these are only reported crimes.
To help the victims of these offenses, VAP advocates receive 40 hours of initial training after an extensive background check is undertaken. "Volunteers must also have the right state of mind," Hall says.
Once a volunteer has graduated, she or he will go on five accompanied cases with a veteran volunteer. While on call, the volunteer is expected to respond immediately to a call, which also applies to the advocates working in the office.
Hall explains, "If a call comes in, they drop what they are doing, paperwork, whatever, and head out. The calls come from dispatch, and are at the officers' discretion whether we should be called out."
The Crime Victim Advocates (CVA) also undergo continued training in many areas, from the criminal justice system to cultural sensitivity.
And of course there is no room for boredom for the advocates. "Even after 16 years I learn something new every day," Hall says.
In addition to the city VAP, there is also an active Dona Ana County Victims Assistance Program, overseen by coordinator Daphne O'Hare. Very similar in scope to the city VAP, the county program is staffed by three full-time employees and 16 volunteers. They handled over 600 cases in the last year, "90 percent of which were connected to domestic violence," O'Hare says.
"The county program began in 1998, and we do more work by phone because of the size of the county," O'Hare explains. "We also have one-person offices in Anthony and Hatch."
Training time for both offices is shared, thus saving some money on expenses.
O'Hare adds that her county office just finished a fund-raiser for kids in need. "It was a kiss-a-pig contest. For each toy that an employee brought in for the kids, they got a vote for the employee they most wanted to see kiss the pig."
The "lucky" pig-kissing winner was Brian Haines, the Dona Ana county manager. O'Hare indicates with a laugh that the event was a success for the kids in need, but not so much for Haines–though it turns out he only had to kiss a stuffed swine.
Another large part of the VAP office's job is to assist its clients with information about the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission (CVRC). This program, which is based in Albuquerque, began in 1981, under the state's Crime Victims Reparation Act. The primary mission of CVRC "is to provide financial assistance to victims of violent crime in regard to expenses incurred as a result of being victimized."
According to the commission's Web site, "In addition to financial assistance for individual victims, CVRC also administers federal flow-through funding from the United States Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). This funding is sub-granted to private non-profit and governmental programs throughout the State of New Mexico to improve and expand services to victims of crime. The two types of federal funding include the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants and the Stop Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grants." Much of the funding for Las Cruces' VAP program comes via such grants.
Briefly, Hall explains that a crime victim who cooperates with law enforcement and the prosecution can submit an application for reimbursement of medical procedures including counseling, with a $20,000 ceiling. "The application does have to be approved by the five-member commission, and each case is verified by a person who is similar in scope to an insurance investigator. The funding for this does not come from tax dollars, but rather from a 'pot' of federal money that is filled from fines and confiscated monies from crimes and the courts." This funding is doled out on a state-by-state basis, and dispersed to each according to population.
As the interview ends, Hall points out a small storeroom stocked with toys and stuffed animals, boxes of food, toiletries and a stack of homemade afghan-type blankets.
"These are donations from the community, but a lot comes from police department personnel," she explains. "Instead of exchanging gifts in the VAP office for Christmas this year, each of us brought in something to share with the families of the crimes. The blankets are from Project Linus [as in the Peanuts character–'a non-profit organization that distributes new, handmade, washable blankets to children who are seriously ill, traumatized or otherwise in need throughout the United States.'] and we also received a lot of support from NMSU's Giving Tree this year. Seventeen individuals from five families were given Christmas this year from the supplies here.
"The Republican Women provide these," Hall says as she gently holds out a small stuffed bear. He has numerous companions waiting to comfort a child or even a traumatized adult.
Hall remains upbeat and positive about the role of the VAP program, in spite of the ever-increasing amount of crime in the area.
"My dream, my vision for VAP is to have paid advocates on each shift, in their own units," she says. "If I can help it, it will happen. It has always been an uphill climb, inch by inch."
The Las Cruces Police Department Victims Assistance Program is in need of volunteers and donations for families who are victims of crime. You can contact them at 528-4111. The Dona Ana County VAP can also use your help and can be reached at 525-8838. The La Casa Domestic Violence Shelter's phone number is 526-9513.
Senior writer Jeff Berg had a number of life-changing experiences during his time as a volunteer at the YWCA Domestic Abuse Center in Missoula, Mont., in the 1980s.