Hope endures: Late DA’s legacy of advocacy remembered, call for support continues

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Attendees place ribbons of remembrance on the Tree of Hope outside the Fulton County Courthouse during the county’s Crime Victims’ Rights Week ceremony, April 29.

FULTON COUNTY – Ribbons filled a tree in front of the Fulton County Courthouse last week – names written upon them in remembrance.

The Tree of Hope was planted 13 years ago to the day by the late – Hon. Louise Sira, former county district attorney and judge – a sign to crime victims and their families. This time, over 100 people gathered to rededicate the tree in her honor and continue her legacy of advocacy.

The event, held by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, the Family Counseling Center of Fulton County, and the center’s Domestic Violence Program last week, annually commemorates Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The week is a national advocacy effort to promote rights, services, and the personal stories of victims of crime and their families. The ribbons carried the names of crime victims over the course of 60 years, an outward symbol they were not forgotten.

“It does give the victim some glimmer of hope that, someday, maybe they’ll be able to not get emotional or be able to live their life without having to think about whatever happened to them, whether it be to them themselves or to another family member,” Amanda Nellis, acting Fulton County district attorney said about the tree in a recent interview. “I know that a lot of these victims think about it every day, and it still traumatizes them.”

Sira, who passed away in 2020, consistently applied for a crime victims grant to underwrite two crime victims advocates in the DA’s office, according to Candiance Gurtler, an advocate with the domestic violence program. Sira provided support for those impacted by crime, said Gurtler, who does similar work to the advocates in the DA’s office.

“She was passionate about making sure that the victims are not forgotten, and making sure that her advocates advocated on behalf of the victims for what their wishes were when it came to sentencing and things like that,” Gurtler said. “Her advocates attended the court dates, and they kept notes of everything that was happening, and then they would contact the family members so that they were always updated.”

According to counseling center executive director Michael Countryman, like Sira, the center has a mission of giving those it serves senses of hope, safety and the feeling that they are not alone. The agency offers short and long term support, whether it’s therapy in the mental health clinic or advocacy through the domestic violence program, he said.

The center served 4,500 clients in 2021 and had a total of 134,000 individual contacts with clients throughout the year, according to Jennifer Jennings, director of marketing and fund development. The numbers demonstrate the breadth of support clients are receiving across the agency, Jennings said, including children and family services and school-based counselors, located in schools within the Gloversville, Johnstown, Canajoharie and Fort Plain school districts.

The Domestic Violence Program’s director, Amanda Anderson, pointed out recently that collaboration also happens externally with services throughout the county, including the Recovery Community & Outreach Center, the Department of Social Services and Fulton Friendship House. Gurtler added that the crime victims grant that Sira used to receive is now received by the local Planned Parenthood, which has victims advocates. Gurtler also said Crime Victims Rights Week is not just to acknowledge victims but to raise awareness of these services.

“A lot of people just aren’t even aware that there are things out there like, not necessarily support groups, although there are those, but there are services that they are entitled to receive,” she said.

Gurtler and Nellis both spoke of helping victims with paperwork for the Office of Victim Services Victim Compensation program as one of the biggest services they provide. If a victim of a crime has suffered a financial loss because of the crime, be it damage to personal property, lost wages or taxicab fare if subpoenaed to testify in court, those and other losses can be compensated, according to Gurtler. She said one of the greatest challenges she’s experienced in recent years, in fact, has been victims going through this process with assistance remotely because of COVID. 

In many cases, it has been the sheer amount of paperwork but, in one case, she participated in a video call with a deaf victim who only read lips and was struggling to communicate.

Anderson said the Domestic Violence Program is part of a large coalition of programs across the state and lack of public transportation and housing shortages are challenges seen historically across New York. She said it goes beyond victims of domestic violence. Similarly, Nellis said a challenge that needs to be addressed at a state level is recent legislation.

“We definitely came a long way from maybe 10 to 15 years ago. But now, with things such as bail reform and the new discovery legislation, we may have taken a step back,” Nellis said. “And, in my opinion, I think that the legislatures need to go back to the drawing board, as it pertains to that, and as it pertains to our victims, and maybe re-examine some of the rules that went into effect because, prior to that, we were able to protect our victims. And that is not the case anymore.”

What is the case is the connection and support officials across Fulton County show to victims, as shown by the elected officials, law enforcement, and other first responders that were numbered among those at last week’s event, according to Jennings. She encouraged members of the community to donate to the center, but also all the local organizations that work for victims rights every day.

Gurtler pointed out that it is also important to never forget the victims and their families, even when tragedy is focused on the act or the perpetrator.

“I would like to see the next time somebody reads something in the paper about a crime, or sees something on the news, that they just stop and pause for a minute and not assume that they already know. And just think about the victims and how that is going to impact the rest of their lives,” she said. “And I mean, maybe it’ll spur them on to become an advocate”

By Andrew Pugliese

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