Created in 1997, the Lincoln County Victim and Witness Advocate office plays a key role in the criminal justice system, not only helping victims stand up to victimizers, but making sure that victims’ rights are not forgotten in the process.
Lincoln County Victim and Witness Advocate Jessica Vanderhoef has been the county’s victim and witness advocate since October 2017. She came to the office with over a decade of experience in law enforcement.
Starting in North Dakota in 2004, Vanderhoef has worked as a school resource officer, a patrol officer and a Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy, among other duties.
“Being on this side of things, this is far more intimate,” she said. “It’s a very intimate, sacred journey through the whole process, which can last — years.”
Lincoln County Attorney Marcia Boris said that Vanderhoef does well in that capacity.
She is skilled at communicating with victims, and keeping those lines of communication open. She also does well building trust with the people she comes into contact with.
“She’s a very empathetic person. I think she is somebody who is very approachable,” Boris said.
In cases such as a homicide, it may be a year between when an arrest is made and the case goes to trial, Boris said. In that time, witnesses can be difficult to maintain contact with. They may change their mind about testifying, or move out of the area.
Vanderhoef not only provides strong support to victims and family members, she also works as a liason for the attorney’s office, Boris said. Just by building and maintaining the relationships, Vanderhoef keeps them engaged and ensures they aren’t lost in the legal process.
Vanderhoef said that she accompanies victims to hearings, or if a victim doesn’t want to be present for a hearing, she keeps them apprised of what is happening.
Coming from a law enforcement background, Vanderhoef said that her work as an advocate has given her some new perspective.
“Nobody’s immune from being a victim of any kind of crime,” she said.
That includes someone who is usually on the offending side of the law. But the fact someone has offenses in their past doesn’t change how Vanderhoef deals with them when they are a victim.
“I try to be consistent, I try to treat anybody the same no matter what their history or background is. Like I said, nobody is immune,” she said.
In cases of abuse, Boris said that sometimes a victim will return to an abusive situation multiple times before they finally leave for good.
“Jessica understands that dynamic as well,” Boris said.
“I think it would be very easy to become frustrated or become discouraged,” Boris said. “But, she’s very even-keeled about that kind of thing as well.”
Vanderhoef said that when dealing with a victim who is caught in a cycle of abuse, she just stays consistent in how she approaches the situation.
“You have to just think, maybe this will be the time they get out of that,” she said.
For a victim, there can be a loss of a state of control, Vanderhoef said. Her goal is to try to help them get that back. Though she said she doesn’t take credit for the times she has seen people make progress in regaining a state of control, it makes her happy to see it.
Boris said that as much as Vanderhoef’s work helps in prosecution, she still puts the welfare of the victim first.
“Her job is to advocate for that victim. And sometimes it may be in the best interest of the victim for the prosecution to not go forward,” Boris said. “She’s very cognisant if that.”
While the prosecutor’s office is concerned about public safety, they also try to be victim-centered, she said.
Crime can also have a ripple effect, Vanderhoef said. Even those who aren’t the direct victim may be traumatized by, and individuals heal at their own speed and in their own way.
The general public may not understand how a crime can ripple through an entire family, damaging or straining relationships. she said.
People affected by a crime may suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress, or just find it difficult to trust others. Someone who has dealt with the situation more quickly may become impatient when others don’t heal as fast.
“It drives a wedge between people,” she said.
While she can’t act as a counselor, Vanderhoef said she can — and does — refer people to someone who can help them when she sees those situations developing.
And Vanderhoef is also always looking for how she can do her job better.
She recently started providing evaluation forms to those she has worked with, in order to see if there is anything she could do better.
So far, the responses have been positive, she said.