January 6, 2014 Updated: January 6, 2014 at 7:30 am
Violent crimes leave traumatized victims - and grieving family members ?- tasked with picking up the pieces of their lives.
But a small unit in the Colorado Springs Police Department bolstered by about 30 volunteers helps them through the often painful and complex process. Last year, the Victim Advocacy Unit helped about 4,600 people with such things as finding financial assistance, relocation and getting counseling, said Maricela Dennis, the volunteer advocate coordinator.
"We're just trying to restore whatever quality of life they had before everything that happened to them, even though we know things will not be the same for most of these people, because the cases we handle really are very high stress and traumatic," Dennis said. "We're just trying to give them some relief."
Beginning in 2000 with one staff member and a handful of volunteers, the unit has expanded into a state grant-funded unit with four full-time members and 30 volunteers who are extensively trained in a 10-week academy.
Advocates such as Dennis work with victims from the moment the police becomes involved in their case, helping with such things as filing documentation for lost wages, death certificates, medical billing and insurance, and much more. In some extreme cases, such as human trafficking, advocates help victims get into safe houses, protect their identities and relocate to other parts of the country.
Lt. Adrian Vazquez has been with the Violent Crimes Unit for about a year-and-a-half and has worked with Dennis since his first day on the job. Initially, he knew little about victim advocacy, but his experience with the Victim Advocacy Unit made him a strong supporter of its work.
"As detectives, we get so focused on wanting to solve the cases and crimes we work on, sometimes we don't recognize the needs of the victims," Vazquez said. "To us, the biggest priority is to get justice and catch the bad guy. For the advocates, their whole purpose is to bring back any peaceful and stable aspects back to the victims' lives."
Advocates have helped in times of community crisis, too. During the Waldo Canyon fire, the unit and its volunteers helped Colorado Springs police with thousands of displaced and homeless evacuees.
"The effect that the advocates had on the victims was tremendous," Vazquez said. "Everyone could see the difference and impact that the connections between them made."
Initially, the unit had a handful of volunteers whose job was limited to calling victims and sending them letters.
"We were at minimum operation until about 2007, when the program grew a little more, and with the Victims' Assistance Law Enforcement grant, we hired two full-time advocates and a third was hired through the Victims of Crime Act," Dennis explained.
The Victims' Assistance Law Enforcement grant and the Victims of Crime Act receive funding from court fees and fines defendants are ordered to pay at the time of sentencing.
In February 2011, the unit had more than 50 applicants for its first Victim Advocacy Volunteer Training Academy, from which 30 volunteers were recruited.. With growing popularity and number of applicants, 35 volunteers were recruited in 2013, Dennis said.
The police department created the Victim Advocate Coordinator position, which Dennis assumed in 2012. With the addition of the volunteers and the full-time staff, the mission and reach of the unit has evolved exponentially. It provides immediate crisis intervention, 24-hours a day, seven-days a week, with follow up support and extensive knowledge of community resources available to crime victims.
"The position has changed tremendously. We get called out at least eight or nine times per week," Dennis said.
The unit is looking for volunteers for its next training academy, which will be in February. Potential volunteers go through a background check and submit to a polygraph, then go through a series of interviews with Dennis and other staff members.
The academy involves 40 hours of training over 10 weeks, which gives volunteers insight to the criminal justice system and community resources. They also hear from a panel of former victims who share their experiences of interaction with advocates.
"Last year we helped over 4,600 victims and we're on track to do the same this year (2013). There's no way we could've reached so many people without our amazing volunteers," Dennis said. "These people do so much for free, because they truly want to help. Their dedication to the unit is the main reason why we've been successful."
Meeting victims on what can arguably be the worst day of their lives, Dennis said, is difficult and in many cases, heartbreaking. But the rewards of the advocates' work are abundant, she said.
"It's very rewarding, especially when you're working with someone, and you help them get financial assistance, relocation and you drive them to the airport and you say goodbye, and you know that they're going to move forward from what happened," Dennis said. "You feel like you've saved a life and made a difference."
Contact Andrea Sinclair at 636-0235.