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Victim assistance program could lose funding as Hillsborough County officials ponder budget cuts

Victim counselor Kelley Purpura listens to a client at the Hillsborough County victim’s assistance offices in Tampa. She has spent the past 20 years guiding victims of child abuse and sex offenses through the court system, helping them and their families understand legal options and how to best seek what justice they can.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Victim counselor Kelley Purpura listens to a client at the Hillsborough County victim’s assistance offices in Tampa. She has spent the past 20 years guiding victims of child abuse and sex offenses through the court system, helping them and their families understand legal options and how to best seek what justice they can.

TAMPA — Prosecutors had a problem.

A man accused of raping his 5-year-old granddaughter wanted out of jail before his trial. But the little girl didn't want to testify at a bond hearing.

Without her words, the man would go free.

Kelley Purpura, a veteran victim's assistant, offered a solution. With permission from the judge, she scooped the girl up and held her like an infant on the witness stand.

Only then did the girl utter hints of her horror, her arms wrapped tight around Purpura's neck the whole time she spoke.

• • •

In a hospital, doctors treat the diseased and nurses comfort them. One does not function without the other.

The same goes for a courthouse, where prosecutors seek justice for crime victims and count on seasoned advocates to shepherd the victims through the legal process. That might mean helping families find a cleaning company to mop up a bloody crime scene or reminding them to wear a sweater to chilly courtrooms.

Crime victims in Hillsborough County have benefited from this expertise for nearly 25 years. But under County Administrator Pat Bean's newly proposed budget cuts, the program is in danger of becoming a victim itself.

Bean says she doesn't take lightly her recommendation to eliminate funding for the victim assistance program and its 35 employees. Doing so would save $2.5 million a year at a time when county programs that serve the elderly, children and animals face slashed funds, too.

"I know the value of these programs," Bean said, sighing. "I almost wish I didn't because that would make it easier for me."

She hopes the state would pick up the bill for victim assistance.

Believing that unlikely, crime victims and the State Attorney's Office hope to persuade commissioners to save the program.

"Without them, who's going to tell the victim what to expect?" said Donna Clemons, who credits victim counselors with guiding her through the murder trials of two teens who beat her 16-year-old daughter and dumped her in a trash bin five years ago.

"The attorneys? They're too busy trying the cases," she said. "They don't have time to coddle, to be the support for the victim."

Put another way, if Kelley Purpura loses her job, who will sit with a wailing rape victim for three hours in a courtroom after a jury acquits her attacker?

• • •

Officially, Purpura, 52, carries the title of victim counselor.

But on any given day, she also functions as a marriage mediator, grief counselor, babysitter and social worker.

She has spent two decades helping victims of child abuse, rape and molestation make sense of the courts. Their sickening stories grab headlines: a 2-year-old girl allegedly raped and killed by her mother's live-in boyfriend, the high school girl attacked at the Bloomingdale library, the Walker Middle School student who authorities say was sodomized with a broom handle and hockey stick by teammates in the school locker room.

Prosecutors come and go. Purpura and her colleagues, most of them long-timers with the victim assistance program, often are the only constant from an arrest to a resolution for victims and their families.

"It wouldn't be a shame if we did away with them. It would be a disaster," said Linda Shiflet, an assistant state attorney who works closely with victim counselors during the intake process, when decisions are made about whether enough evidence exists to file charges. "I don't think we would function without them."

Purpura smiles a lot, despite spending much of her time tending to victimized children. She sits with them through depositions, walks them to the witness stand at trial and awards them bravery certificates after they testify.

In return, they fill her walls with crayon drawings. One little girl drew the entire cast of SpongeBob SquarePants to pass the time during her molester's trials. A boy scribbled "I LOVE U as a friend!" on a piece of blue construction paper.

The job, Purpura said, "means everything to me."

One morning last week, she led the parents of a mentally disabled teen to the office of Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters, chief of the sex crimes division.

Peters needed to know whether they would consider allowing her to extend a plea offer to the man accused of sexually battering their daughter. She wanted Purpura there to help explain the option, aware that victims sometimes view plea negotiations as a weakness coming from a prosecutor.

Families trust Purpura. She interprets tactics, helps them see the lawyers aren't just giving up.

Purpura began the meeting on a personal note. She wanted to know about the victim.

"How's she doing?" Purpura asked the parents.

For once, there was good news. The mother said her daughter had become more verbal.

Happy tears welled in the corner of Purpura's eyes.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Victim assistance program could lose funding as Hillsborough County officials ponder budget cuts 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 8:42pm]
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