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Teacher turned lawyer seeks to protect crime victims

Teaching preschool and kindergarten during the 1980s in New Hampshire, Melissa Cilley knew that children in her care had experienced physical or sexual abuse.

Lutheran Community Services responds to victims of abuse and crime.
Melissa Cilley

Frustrated that laws made it hard to protect children, she decided to study juvenile and family law in Kansas, so she could help abused and disabled children. 

When she began to practice, she focused on abuse and neglect cases, representing other children pro bono on the side.

“After I had my own children, abuse cases became difficult, so I began representing children and families in disputes with school districts, protecting rights of children with disabilities, mediating, negotiating, and doing some litigation,” she said.

Such cases were also difficult, because she often confronted teachers in court.  Having many teachers in her family, she knew how hard they worked.

When her husband, Rodger, became administrator at Gonzaga Prep in 2001 and they moved to Spokane, she stayed home with their three children for a while.

Not wanting to return to litigation, she looked for work with a nonprofit.  She found that role in 2002 as director of the Victims Rights Response Team at Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW).  The team needed legal expertise, as well as people with medical, advocacy, referral, and crisis counseling skills. 

“Our approach encompasses the entire family.  If you do not support a family, it’s hard for them to heal.  It’s a family experience when a child experiences a crime,” said Melissa, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas in theatre performance and in communication, and has a juris doctor degree from the University of Kansas School of Law.

Melissa, who attends Sacred Heart Catholic Church, first thought LCSNW was just for Lutherans.

“It’s for clients and staff of all faiths, ages, ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.  Faith is part of why many staff do the work,” she said.  “We believe we are servants for those who are unable to speak for themselves, to help them find their voices and heal.”

In contrast to representing a client in a courtroom, Melissa said that her role as advocate and the role of the team are to give people  tools to help them find their own voice, rather than speaking for them.  In this way, victims are better able to heal and be functioning parts of society after they experience a crime and struggle with the trauma related to it. 

“Our team of 14 professionals does crisis counseling, not long-term therapy,” she said.  “For example, they go to the emergency room to give urgent care to stop the victim’s emotional and psychological bleeding.  They also go to court or other legal proceedings to support or assist the victim.  While some victims may call just once, we serve some clients for years while they are in the legal system.  Some may eventually enter therapy, which is also available at LCSNW.”

Clients can call a 24-hour crisis line any time of the day or night when they have a crisis, question or concern.

The team goes into the community to be where crime victims may be—at the Women’s Hearth, Crosswalk, the House of Charity, Christ Clinic, Martin Hall, Pine Lodge, Alternatives to Detention, Hope House, the needle-exchange van, community centers and some churches.

“We are where we need to be to be accessible to clients, including providing Spanish- and Russian-speaking advocates. We reach into the community because many people who experience crimes will not go to a setting where they have to show ID or sit in a waiting area,” Melissa said.

Many incarcerated people, especially juveniles, experienced sexual violence.  Out of trauma, some may run away, then be truant, steal and self medicate with alcohol or drugs.  Soon they are homeless or into drugs and crime.  Some become perpetrators.  Most never had an opportunity to work through the crime they experienced, to learn to cope using skills that would help them manage their trauma productively, she said.

“By providing services around a crime, we help a person deal with underlying layers of trauma from a crime  that may have occurred in childhood,” said Melissa, who has participated in the “Our Kids Are Our Business” initiative.

“There are many layers,” she explained.  “We may deal with alcohol abuse, but a victim may go back to it because of underlying trauma.  It’s critical for children and adults who experience crimes to have access to support.”

To make services accessible, LCSNW provides crisis services at no cost, funding them with grants.

The program began 25 years ago as the Rape Crisis Center.  Then it became the Spokane Sexual Assault Center.  In 2001, it became the SAFeT Response Center as it expanded to victims of other crimes.

In 2006, the SAFeT Response Center’s Crisis Unit was renamed the Victims Rights Response Team (VRRT).  It became the lead agency for the Crime Victims Service Center  in this region.  The Spokane County Crime Victims Service center works collaboratively with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s office, which is required to provide services to crime victims and witnesses.

In addition to providing emergency emotional and psychological support, the Victim Rights Response Team provides legal advocacy to help people understand and uphold their rights just after the crime, during interviews, in court hearings or afterwards.

Because it is a community-based organization rather than part of a system, Melissa said the team can assist with a broad scope of the victims’ and families’ needs.  It does not require that a victim report the crime and is not limited to the priorities of a particular system.

When someone goes to the hospital after a sexual assault or other crime, the victim can request the team to send a certified advocate to assist.  If the case goes to the prosecutor, the VRRT may stay with a victim for years, even after deposition of the legal case.

The advocate strives to minimize the victim’s trauma, helping deal with the emotional trauma so he or she can give accurate information to medical staff and law enforcement. 

“Our follow through in court means we are there when the accused is found guilty or acquitted,” said Melissa.  “If the offender faces no repercussions, the trauma arises again, as it may on the anniversary of the crime.  Victims can maintain a relationship with our organization as often and long as they need.”

The VRRT advocates for the victim in other ways, too.  If an employer is upset by the time the victim spends in court, the advocate can help enforce laws protecting employees who are crime victims.  If a client has to leave the building where the perpetrator lives, the team informs the landlord the victim has a right to break the lease.   When the team refers someone for drug or alcohol treatment or other services, they stay in connection to be sure the referral is successful. 

“We surround clients with support to assure their success within each system,” Melissa said.

Statistically, one in six people in Spokane experiences a crime.  In 2006, the crisis line received 10,000 calls and met with 2,500 people in person.

The program also raises awareness around all crimes, including sexual violence.

“There are still barriers for victims of sexual violence.  Many people still blame victims.  It’s the most violent crime a  person can survive, but those victims are often treated as if they did something wrong,” Melissa said.  “Nothing they did made them deserve it, even in acquaintance cases.  If they said no, they were raped.”

Melissa is concerned that “in media and everywhere in society, we objectify women.  Making women and children objects makes some think it is okay to hurt or violate their rights, as if they are of lesser value.

“Media help create perpetrators,” she said, “and we need to be aware of how they do that.”

“What happened in the Catholic Church is the tip of the iceberg.  It happens throughout the community and to people we care about,” said Melissa, who found the focus on “Our Kids Are Our Business” helpful.

“It was easy to point to Catholic priests.  When the scandal broke, people blamed it on celibacy, but it’s in every social, economic, religious, ethnic and cultural group.  It’s everywhere.  It’s pervasive.  People need to grasp that a person down the street may molest a child. Statistics show that an average of six out of 30 children in any classroom will experience child sexual abuse or other sexual violence before they turn 18.

“What happened in the diocese outraged people, but happens all around us. People throughout the community are abused.  We need to see and respond to every crime against children,” Melissa said.

Aware that sex offenders are released into society every day, the VRRT participates in the Partnership for Community Safety, which works to assure that supports are in place for offenders to reduce recidivism.

That partnership, like “Our Kids Are Our Business,” is a community effort to commit ourselves to insure the safety of our community and children, she said.

Melissa added that members of the faith community need to see it is part of their responsibility to care for all God’s children. 

“If we, as a whole community, do not care for children and their families, in 10 to 15 years those children may commit crimes and change the quality of our lives,” she said.  “They need to know the community cares.”

For information, call 747-8224.

Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © May 2007