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Victims of sexual violence getting better information about offenders’ status

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Brad Bumsted | Trib Total Media
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, July 27, 2015, on an improved notification system in Pennsylvania for victims of sexual violence. He is joined by, from left, State Police Captain Scott C. Price and Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, chairman of a criminal justice advisory committee of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

HARRISBURG — It took officials in the state Office of the Victim Advocate fewer than three months to find nearly 800 victims of violent sexual predators and add their names to its notification list.

Those victims previously received no updates about their abusers’ status, not knowing if they remained in jail or moved to the next street over.

“Notification and knowledge gives a little more power back to victims,” said Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed.

The increase comes from a partnership between the state police and Office of Victim Advocate, begun in May and announced Tuesday in a Capitol news conference. State Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said she thinks the partnership will help 2,000 to 3,000 extra victims.

The advocate office now sends 20,000 to 30,000 notifications to crime victims, including some victims of sexual abuse. The notifications cover any change in an offender’s status, such as an upcoming parole hearing, a new address or new employer.

Victims of sexually violent predators, by law, were to be notified by state police when the offender’s status changed.

Police often had trouble keeping current with victims’ contact information, said state police Capt. Scott Price. The new system gives Storm’s office access to daily updates in offenders’ statuses, so that advocates can contact victims. It streamlines the notification process, officials said.

Sexually violent predators are those whom a judge determines have a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes them likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses. The state’s 1,400 sexually violent predators must register for life under Pennsylvania’s version of Megan’s Law.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, chairman of a criminal justice advisory commission of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, said a federal grant of $143,000 through the commission will go to Storm’s office.

The money will pay for a staffer who works with the state police database on the notifications, Storm said.

“The specific victim notification regarding sexually violent predators didn’t fall under the responsibility of the Office of Victim Advocate as all other post-sentencing notifications do,” said Storm. “Our office assists crime victims every day by providing ongoing services after sentencing; therefore, it makes sense that we assist in making these notifications.”

Victims are notified by letters, phone calls and emails.

The Office of Victim Advocate, established in 1995, employs 30 people and has a budget of about $3 million. Storm became the advocate 18 months ago.

“A conviction is not an end point for a victim of crime. A conviction is more a point closer the beginning of the process, as they work through what happened,” said Freed, a past president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

Vereb, a former police officer, said too many times that “a victim’s last day of justice is at the verdict. We have to change the conversation. Our victims have the same rights as criminals — or more.”

A 2011 state law gave responsibility for notifications regarding sexually violent predators to state police, but they had a list of only about 500 victims. Under the memorandum of understanding, the advocate office has more than doubled that number.

“It’s a huge amount of work, finding these victims and sending timely and sensitive notifications,” Storm said.

Storm said notifications can trigger strong emotional responses from victims, and it can be helpful to have someone specifically trained to work with victims notifying them.

“It can be very traumatizing for them,” she said.

Brad Bumsted and Megan Guza are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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