Program offers help to victims

COVINGTON -- Crime victims are protected by the law, but many may not know they can take steps to protect themselves against violent acts before they happen.

One of the most commonly used tools for victims of violent crimes -- particularly those related to domestic violence -- is the temporary protective order.

Leslie Smith has been director of the Newton County Victim Witness Assistance Program since 2002. She works with individuals involved in violent situations and serves as the liaison between law enforcement, the prosecutor and the victim.

"Our services are based on the 1995 Crime Victims Bill of Rights and the main objective of our program is to make sure the Victims Bill of Rights is enforced," Smith said. "We consult with victims where 911 was called, whether an arrest was made or not, and we work to educate them and guide them through the criminal justice process."

One of those processes is helping victims fill out petitions for protective orders.

Smith said while TPOs are a valuable tool for protecting victims from individuals who could harm them, she said they are only the first layer in protection.

"It lays the foundation for criminal charges if the protective order is violated, but it is a very thin Band-Aid," she said. "We advise victims that they tell others to help look out for them."

For example, Smith said she tells victims to tell family, co-workers and neighbors to help keep an eye out for the person who may try to harm them.

"Even if they're embarrassed, I tell them their safety is way more important than their pride," she said.

The Victim Witness Assistance Program doesn't only work with victims of domestic violence, but victims of any crime, from shoplifting to capital murder. The three full-time staff members in the Newton County District Attorney's Office also work with witnesses to crimes, interviewing them and scheduling them to meet with prosecutors. Smith said her office operates with an annual budget of about $85,000.

In March and April, three domestic violence-related deaths occurred in Newton County. On March 7, 19-year-old Audrey Atkinson was shot to death by her estranged boyfriend, Anthony Michael Barrow, 22. Atkinson had taken out a TPO against Barrow a few weeks earlier.

The Covington Police Department and the Covington/Newton County SWAT responded to a Forest Drive residence March 16 when Gary Darby, 46, apparently shot and killed himself inside his ex-wife's home.

The Newton County Sheriff's Office responded on April 8 to a home on Fairview Chase where David Stomackin apparently shot and killed his wife, Laura Stomackin, before turning the gun and killing himself.

Many community and justice-based agencies across the country are recognizing this week as National Crime Victims' Rights Week, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. This year's theme is "Crime Victims' Rights: Fairness, Dignity, Respect," which is to highlight the importance of affording crime victims these rights and recognize the individuals and organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to this effort, the release states.

And helping crime victims regain their dignity and find strength comes as a natural by-product of working with the Victim Witness Assistance Program, Smith said. She said much of her job is listening to victims and validating their feelings. She said that not everyone who seeks a TPO actually signs one and many victims who do take out a TPO will drop it in a few days or weeks.

"I tell (victims) the first two weeks are absolutely the hardest," she said. "The main reason they back out is they have been stuck in a situation so long where they have been told how to think, feel and act, and it's hard to break free from that mentality. An abuser will withhold love, affection or, worse, money. Many times they have been isolated from family and friends because the abuser wants it that way."