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Budget cuts endanger victims' services

LARGO — Laurie Gomm's daughter was murdered. The case was unsolved for two years. When an arrest was finally made, the yearlong delays in court proceedings made Gomm fret constantly.

She says she couldn't have endured that time if not for a victim advocate provided to her by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"Without her, I would have been lost," Gomm says. "It was like a shoulder to cry on whenever I needed someone to be there for me."

But tight budget times mean Sheriff Jim Coats may have to cut the number of victim advocates employed by his agency. The agency currently has seven advocates and a unit supervisor.

Coats is proposing to cut two of those positions.

County commissioners have told Coats he must slice 10 percent of his budget. Several popular programs could be clipped or eliminated, including community policing, DUI enforcement and sexual offender tracking.

Coats doesn't want to cut the number of victim advocates, but says he may not have a choice. He said the agency, for the first time in its history, may have to lay people off.

"This is very painful and tough," Coats said.

The wrinkle when it comes to the advocates, however, is the two positions on the chopping block are primarily funded by a grant the advocates have received for more than a decade and expect to continue to receive. The positions only cost the Sheriff's Office about $7,600 each, said Tara Davis Weschler, the assistant coordinator of the victim advocate unit.

But to keep the grant, the Sheriff's Office cannot eliminate any other positions in the unit. Supervisor Laura Scott said higher-ups in the department have told her the elimination of the grant positions means more cuts to the unit could occur in the future.

Coats said Friday he will re-evaluate whether to cut the unit.

Scott said the Sheriff's Office was one of the first agencies in the nation to start a victim advocate unit in 1981. It has won several national and state awards.

Advocates respond to crime scenes to comfort victims and often accompany them through hearings and trials.

They help victims with things like getting restitution and applying for victim compensation. They also help keep victims informed about the progress of their cases, which Scott says fosters greater cooperation by victims during prosecution.

"It really takes an advocate to keep them going through the system," Scott says. "And if that doesn't happen, the bad guys don't get prosecuted and that makes it less safe for everyone."

Gomm says she needed her victim advocate after her daughter, Niccole Halpin, was murdered in her Safety Harbor home in 2004. Detectives suspected Halpin's ex-boyfriend, Daniel Welch, but didn't have enough evidence to arrest him until 2006. Welch pleaded guilty and accepted a 25-year prison sentence more than a year later.

That three-year period was difficult for Gomm. She often tried to check in with the detective and prosecutor working on the case, but they were often busy.

Victim advocate Bobbie Tarpley always had time to talk to Gomm and accompanied her to hearings.

"She was like my right hand," Gomm says. "You have no idea until you need it yourself."

Many times, advocates sit with victims' families during trials.

On an afternoon two weeks ago, four sheriff's advocates were comforting families during trials at the Largo courthouse. Two were in rape trials, one was in a murder case and the other had an attempted murder trial.

In the middle of the afternoon, one advocate had to leave to attend a domestic violence hearing. Then she had to head out to the scene of a child rape.

"This is just a day in the life," said Weschler, who was in the attempted murder trial. "We're all here running nuts."

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has more victim advocates than other law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area and spends about $500,000 annually to pay its staff.

The St. Petersburg Police Department and Pasco Sheriff's Office each have four. The Largo Police Department has three, Tampa police have two and Clearwater police have one.

Scott says the agency should be proud of the service it provides to victims. Victims and their families are writing county commissioners asking to preserve the positions.

Weschler said the advocates have offered to take pay cuts or days off without pay. She said the advocates believe what they do is important for people who have endured so much.

"We're willing to do whatever it takes to continue the services," she said. "We feel it's that important."

Times staff writers Molly Moorhead and Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 892-2359 or [email protected]

Budget cuts endanger victims' services 06/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 11:46am]
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