Missouri has made progress in helping victims and survivors of crime get through what can be a painful courtroom experience, but much more work remains, Gov. Mike Parson and other state leaders said Wednesday during the Crime Victims' Rights Week ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda.
"Not long ago, when a crime victim or survivor testified in court, they were treated just like any other witness," Parson said. "There was no victim advocate to tell them what to expect and to help them in the difficult process of testifying against the offender who victimized them. Those things don't happen anymore because of the victims and their allies who told the criminal justice system, 'We have to do better.'"
In the last year, Parson said, Missouri has reformed its Crime Victims' Compensation (CVC) program to get assistance to more victims, initiated an effort to test thousands of untested sexual assault kits, and enacted a law to expand the use of drug treatment courts across the state.
House Bill 1355, which is the law Parson said changed the CVC program, eliminated requirements that crimes be reported within 48 hours, that compensation payments end after three years, that counseling expenses be limited to $2,500, and that applications had to be notarized. The CVC helps pay crime victims' out-of-pocket expenses, such as counseling, funeral expenses and lost wages. In the last five years, it has awarded more than $23 million to more than 8,300 Missourians who were victims of crimes involving violence or the threat of violence.
In October, Missouri was awarded a $2.8 million U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance Grant to inventory, track and test a backlog of more than 5,000 untested sexual assault kits.
Also in October, Parson signed House Bill 2 into law, which allows Missouri jurisdictions without treatment courts to transfer defendants to jurisdictions that have them. Parson said the expansion would be a more effective alternative than prison for defendants in need of treatment and reduce recidivism.
As the former Polk County sheriff, Parson said he took pride in having been the first sheriff in the county to bring on a victim advocate to help crime victims.
"One of the hardest parts of the job for anyone in law enforcement is to tell a family that a loved one has been hurt or killed from a criminal act," Parson said. "It's hard on the officer, but then the family has to live with the loss. But, many victims are survivors. They are fighters and as a result, there are changed attitudes."
Describing herself as one of those survivors Wednesday was Johanna Olsen Henry, of Jefferson City. Speaking to the Rotunda crowd, Henry recounted the day in 2007 when her brother, Toby Olsen, 17, and mother Jean Olsen, 45, were killed when their van was hit by a drunken driver on Route C in Russellville. Johanna and her father, Eric Olsen, survived the crash.
For the past 10 years, Henry has been an advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving by sharing her story.
"You can choose to be a victim, or you can choose to be a survivor," Henry said. "I choose to be a survivor. I choose not to stay a victim, and I choose to survive the circumstances that were handed to me.
"I thought, 11 years from now, I would have closure, but I'm still discovering that I'm never going to have closure. That I'm never going to find that normalcy again. It's a new normalcy. It's realizing that you are a survivor."