The Albuquerque Journal’s front page on May 7th, 2018 featured an article about our Los Lunas peer support group and the shortage of victim advocates in New Mexico. Some highlights are below, and you can find the full article here: https://www.abqjournal.com/1168536/a-lifeline-worn-thin.html
“A lifeline worn thin: Victim advocate shortage plagues several NM counties
… ‘It’s a safe place where you can be real,’ Hutchison said. ‘I don’t have the ability to fake it anymore. … You laugh if you feel it and cry if you feel it.’ The support group meets once a month in a small rented room at Heritage Park in Los Lunas, where the center’s victim advocate Joan Shirley and volunteer Susan Williams set up tables and chairs before familiar faces file through the doorway, each brought in by a tragedy. Each carrying a loss.
‘You’re talking about the worst thing that could possibly happen to you,’ Shirley said. ‘It is a hellacious experience and brings the strongest people to their knees.’
This is magnified for those in Valencia County, where victim advocates appointed by the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office are overloaded and understaffed, unable to give the hands-on, around-the-clock assistance many victims need as they navigate a complicated criminal justice system.
1 county, 1 advocate
Rachel Combest has a lot on her plate.
As the sole remaining victim advocate in Valencia County, Combest oversees 350 cases, assisting victims of everything from battery to homicide.
‘It’s a scary situation for them to just be thrown into this,’ Combest said.
Some victims can serve as witnesses, a tool for the DA to use in the prosecution, while others just need help getting back on their feet.
For each case, Combest is expected to explain the legal process, organize and maintain case files, direct the victims to resources, notify them of hearings and – if possible – go with them to court.
‘I can’t be there for every single court hearing,’ she said. ‘I try.’
District Attorney Lemuel Martinez is quick to admit the office could do a better job for victims, particularly in Valencia County.
Members of the support group say they needed more than court notifications, legal explanations and pamphlets.
‘They felt alone,’ Shirley said.
During their monthly rendezvous, the families get together to share a meal, vent frustrations with the legal system and talk about the loved ones they lost. Although they’ve known one another a few years at most, they laugh and cry together like family.
‘I always say, it’s like the best group of people you never want to meet,’ Eileen Williams says.
Out of the wreckage of tragedy, friendships have sprouted for many of them. The families now keep in touch, go out to eat, attend court hearings together and have become their own advocates.
‘If it wasn’t for this group – our family would’ve been lost,’ Jaquez said.
The resource center is once again trying to expand, hoping to open a support group with a victim advocate in Roswell.
The support group in Albuquerque, Torrez’s district, continues to grow as the homicide count rises – many of them unsolved. The need for victim advocates is showing no sign of slowing.
‘You want the happy ending,’ Shirley said. ‘This is reality.'”