The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

January 31, 2011

Victim’s assistance office helps people affected by crime

JEFFERSON — Living on the razor’s edge is part of the job description for those who help crime victims pick up the pieces of their broken lives.

The constant emotional tension doesn’t deter Cindy VanAllen, director of the Ashtabula County Victims of Crime Assistance Program, who helps people rebuild their lives.

“We get to see people at the most tragic and sad time, but we get to see them take steps (toward healing),” she said of the exciting part of the job, which takes many forms.

VanAllen spends many hours sitting in courtrooms as terrible details of crimes

are brought to light. The experience brings the crime back to life for those whose healing already may have begun.

“You try to bring them back into the present when they are reliving the experience,” she said. “We hang on to the hope we are making a difference,” she said.

VanAllen, who works with victim advocate Bonnie Elliott, has been director for eight years and involved with helping crime victims for more than 18 years. She said she really enjoys her job and has earned a living in a variety of ways, including as a clown, cab driver and tour guide.

“I started to volunteer in the office, and it evolved,” VanAllen said.

VanAllen finds herself as a go-between for victims, making contact with law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office.

“We make their wishes known,” she said.

The office is a critical connection to a variety of social-service and governmental organizations that can lend a hand to crime victims. Some victims sometimes feel victimized by the legal system. Victims advocates attend hearings and try to help people through a legal system that can be very frustrating for victims.

“I go to the hearings and try and break it down for them,” she said.

VanAllen said it is important for people interested in getting into victims assistance work to find a mentor.

“You have to almost work with somebody who is in the field,” she said.

Staying in touch with the latest changes in sentencing guidelines and other aspects of the law are essential, VanAllen said.

The assistance program helps victims prepare a highly personal response during sentencing.

The victims office is funded 75 percent by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office with a 25 percent match from the county. Budget cuts have reduced the time the pair can work to help prepare cases.

“You just do the best you can,” VanAllen said.

One of the best parts of the job is hearing how people’s lives have changed during the years following the crime.

Criminal-justice classes are a good place for a young person interested in the field to start, VanAllen said.

“I never would have imagined this,” she said of her love for the job.

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