Victims' advocate helped hundreds

Office provides `reassurance' and `someone to call'

July 27, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, the elderly man robbed while leaving the bank or the woman being threatened by her neighbor can often become just another name, just another report that the police officer fills out en route to the next call.

Since September 1993, Suzie Tornatore has put faces to those names. The head of the Police Department's victim assistance unit, she has called victims, listened to their stories, directed them to services they may need and, when necessary, accompanied them to court.

Howard County's 8-year-old program was one of the first in the state. Since then, police victim assistance units have grown more numerous and more important in Maryland and nationally.

As part of a pioneering program, Tornatore has affected more than the hundreds of victims her Howard County office has assisted directly: the unit has helped departments statewide by giving them a tool for preventing crime and doing community policing.

Tornatore retires today, although she may work part time until a replacement is named in the fall.

"I'm not a police officer. I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a counselor," Tornatore said. "But I think sometimes [victims] need the reassurance they have someone to call."

She helped to define the job, succeeding someone who worked part time. She lacked direct experience in the field -- she had taught aquatic therapy to seniors at Howard Community College and was a home care and hospice nurse. But, said Police Chief Wayne Livesay."She seemed to have a burning desire to help victims."

Tornatore learned the job by studying the criminal justice system, and attending classes on victim services whenever she could. Her office contacts about 35 victims a week, focusing on violent crime and crimes against senior citizens.

"On the surface, it would appear there is no comparison" between violent crime and less serious crimes against the elderly, Tornatore said. But, "to a victim, there is no such thing as a minor crime. You can't say there is less of an impact."

Senior citizens are the county's fastest-growing population. Generally, authorities say, they suffer more serious physical injury from a crime than younger people.

Victimized seniors face unique challenges. For example, although robbery and burglary are more serious crimes than vandalism, the senior whose mailbox has been torn down by vandals now has an additional problem: "Many seniors don't have money to buy a new mailbox," Tornatore said. "[Without] a mailbox, their Social Security checks aren't delivered."

So Tornatore set aside part of the county's $47,625 state grant to buy new mailboxes. In all, the state is receiving $5.2 million over four years from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tornatore has had a great personal impact on many victims. When Wing Wu, 26, was critically injured, and her mother, So Shan Chan, 52, was killed outside the county Circuit Courthouse on March 11, Tornatore was one of the first to call Wu. When they met, Tornatore mothered Wu, holding her hand and instantly resuming an earlier phone conversation.

She remembered that Wu was having trouble sleeping, was getting ready to see a counselor and was trying to recall what she saw that day. This month, Wu gave Tornatore flowers from her mother's garden to thank her for helping.

"I miss her so much," Wu said. "She is so kind."

Victim assistance programs also help police departments gather information that witnesses forget -- or are afraid -- to tell an officer. Victims might remember something days later or feel more at ease telling someone who is not in uniform.

These programs also allow departments to redefine how they will serve citizens, sending a message that they want to make victim services part of solving and preventing crime.

"I think we provide [citizens] a human side," said Livesay. "It's more than solving crimes; it's dealing with people."

The idea of using government agencies to help crime victims began in the late 1960s as the civil rights movement and the women's movement began to shift focus away from criminals to victims, said Shari Heise, victims witness specialist for the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore."There was kind of a national awakening that helping victims of crime is now something we needed to look at," Heise said.

The programs initially were established by prosecutors' offices. But few cases go to trial, and most victims deal with police. County police officials recognized the void locally, so they applied for and received their first grant in 1991, said Capt. Jay Zumbrun.

Now, 47 percent of the nation's largest police departments run victim service units out of their stations, according to a Department of Justice survey. Prosecutors, including those in Howard County, continue to provide services as well.

Tornatore will be missed.

"If I can find another Suzie Tornatore, I'll be very grateful," Livesay said.

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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