One of my favorite parts of practicing Family Law is seeing how it sometimes overlaps with many other different areas of law. At times, that includes the criminal arena, especially when working on domestic violence matters. For domestic violence cases with related criminal charges in the 9th Circuit – District Division – Nashua, we oftentimes reach out to the Victim Witness Advocate for the Nashua Police Department, Jennifer Dickinson. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Dickinson to learn more about how she supports victims.
Ms. Dickinson has been the Nashua Police Department’s Victim Witness Advocate for over eleven years. Before that, she was a Direct Service Advocate at the YWCA NH Domestic and Sexual Violence Crisis Center in Manchester, NH, where she began as a volunteer and then went on to serve as the Criminal Justice Advocate and Domestic Violence Specialist. She has a degree in Criminal Justice.
What is a Victim Witness Advocate?
Ms. Dickinson works with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking through the criminal justice process. She is part of the Domestic Violence Unit within the Special Investigations Division, along with two Police Officers. She starts her day at the Court, where she acts as a liaison between the victims and the prosecutors. She frequently talks to victims to make sure they agree with the potential plea agreement. If they do not, then Ms. Dickinson goes back to the prosecutor. Maybe they will change the plea, or go to trial, or sometimes they proceed forward against the victim’s wishes- in that instance, Ms. Dickinson explains to the victim that they have the right to address the Court, or instead the Victim Witness Advocate can tell the judge that the victim does not agree.
After she is done in Court for the day, Ms. Dickinson goes back to the station to review domestic violence reports and contact victims about Court dates, about the criminal justice process, and to find out what the victim wants to happen. She also calls victims to notify them of updates and what is happening in the case.
The Victim Witness Advocate is different from a Crisis Center Advocate. In fact, Ms. Dickinson explained that she often refers victims to Bridges, the crisis center in Nashua. Bridges advocates can provide assistance with restraining orders, the crisis line service is available 24/7, and the advocates are bound by confidentiality.
In contrast, Ms. Dickinson does not have the same confidentiality because she is required to turn over any exculpatory information to the prosecutors. An example of exculpatory information is if the victim denies that the incident occurred through conversations with the Victim Witness Advocate.
Meet People Where They Are
Ms. Dickinson stressed that she believes the Nashua Police Department does a good job of supporting victims. If a victim does not cooperate, Ms. Dickinson does not get angry with them. She says that she meets people where they are- she is not there to judge. When asked what qualities she has that helps her work with victims, Ms. Dickinson said that she is patient and compassionate. She truly believes that people can change their situation. To her, there is nothing more rewarding than encouraging someone to want better and to move on from a bad situation.
When meeting with a victim, Ms. Dickinson encourages them to think about the relationship they are in. She will tell the person that they have the ability to move forward and leave. She does not say this to pass judgment on where they are. She makes it clear that she respects their decision, and if their choice is to stay, then she wants to help make sure they are safe and that they know there are resources out there.
Ms. Dickinson wants people to know that if they need help, they can contact her or the Nashua Police Department. She often gets phone calls from concerned friends or family members who need advice. What she tells them is that there are resources and there is help. Ms. Dickinson is happy to talk and to be a resource in the community.