A home invasion. Window broken where a female is home alone. Man tries to steal her TV. Woman has gun, struggles with burglar, is shot.
Another crime victim, yet another person for Brenda Hoffmeyer and the staff of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program to help.
“So what will I do?” Hoffmeyer asks. “The case is coming in; no warrant’s been taken. Oftentimes you will never get an arrest, even in homicides. You may not get an arrest, but we still deal with the victim and we can still file for compensation.”
The Victim/Witness Assistance Program aims to help victims of crimes make it through the ordeal of being dragged into a situation that was often not their doing.
“You do not have to have an arrest or know who the perpetrator is to assist the victim,” Hoffmeyer said. “So even not knowing who the victim is, this afternoon I will call and get the information about our program to her, find out what we need to do for her, if there’s anything she needs.”
Hoffmeyer will call her connections about crime scene cleanup.
“The victim may want to get the window replaced and they can bring me a receipt and we will file that with Victim Compensation,” a program funded mostly by fines from federal and local prisoners that helps reimburse crime victims for their losses.
“I’ll also try to set her up for therapy, bring her into our office and talk to her about the system and what we’re going to do,” Hoffmeyer said. “I’ll tell her who her advocate is who will be working with her and from now on, she will be one of our cases and we’ll begin to work with her, even though the DA doesn’t have a case yet.”
The program is always there, waiting to help victims of crime.
“Law enforcement calls us all the time, says we haven’t made an arrest yet, her son was murdered, can you talk to her?” Hoffmeyer said. “And from that point on, she’s one of our cases and we’ll talk to her and keep her updated. On homicides, Kermit (McManus, the district attorney) and I sit down with the families and explain the system, talk to them all the way through the case and keep them updated.”
Even when the case is over, the program follows through and sends information to the judge for the sentencing, to the Parole Board.
The program is taking part in National Crime Victims’ Rights Week April 18-24.
“All of the members of the Parole Board and their staff will be here in Dalton for a day for Parole Visitors Day,” Hoffmeyer said. “We have 178 open victim cases in the system that we are dealing with. We’ll send out letters to all these victims and tell them the Parole Board will be here. The Parole Board will come and bring their case files, and those victims can schedule appointments and come in and meet with a member of the Parole Board about the case and tell them how the crime affected them. All this information goes into what they call the protest part of the file. So when this criminal comes up for parole, the board has that victim input.”
Hoffmeyer said the Parole Board visited here about five years ago, and nearly 100 victims showed up. “We started at 8 that morning and went until 9 that night, and the Parole Board stayed with them until they got through with the last one,” she said. “Every victim had a chance to meet with the Parole Board and talk to them about their case. It’s very important that a victim do that, that they are able to put a face with someone down at the Parole Board.”
Hoffmeyer says the Parole Board has an automated notification program called the Victim Information Program. Victims can apply for a password and are able to find out the location of the inmate 24 hours a day.
“That’s very important” for peace of mind, she said. “I used to get calls at home from families who would say, ‘My daughter thought she saw him (the criminal) at the grocery store and now she won’t come out of the house.’ Back then if this was over the weekend, I couldn’t find out anything until Monday morning. Now the victims can pick up the phone and put their passcode in and find out is he in or is he out?”
The board also will automatically call a victim if an inmate dies or is transferred or escapes.
“It’s a really good system for victims,” Hoffmeyer said.
Brenda Hoffmeyer knows what it’s like to get that phone call in the middle of the night that no one ever wants to get. On Christmas night in 1984, she got that call. Her cousin, Margaret Eaton, had been brutally murdered by a co-worker at the Youth Detention Center.
“She was filling in for a houseparent who became sick that night, and a parolee from Ohio was working there, too,” Hoffmeyer recalled. “He attacked her. Somehow Barbara got out of the building and got in her car, tried to drive away, but he had beat her and raped her and she was sort of out of it and her car had frosted over so she grounded out across the street into the woods. She started running. He chased her down and beat her in the head with the end of a stick. He dragged her back to the car and poured gasoline from her feet to her head and burned her alive.”
Even 26 years later, the heart-breaking story chills listeners to the bone.
“It was horrible, I mean it was absolutely horrible,” Hoffmeyer recalls, sitting behind a desk in her office in the Whitfield County Courthouse, where she has for the past 24 years headed a program that aims to make life easier for other victims of crime.
Out of that horrific murder, however, has come good, much good, through the Victim/Witness Assistance Program, one of the first three in Georgia, set up in 1986 by then-district attorney Jack Partain to help local residents victimized by crime.
“The smartest thing I ever did was hire Brenda to run the program,” reflects Partain, now a Superior Court judge in Whitfield County. “When I interviewed her, it was a no-brainer decision. She is the kind of person that can take something like this and run with it. I had the vision for the program, and she developed it.”
From humble beginnings in a tiny office, the program has grown tremendously under Hoffmeyer’s leadership. Last year, the program helped 869 crime victims and provided services to 2,469 people, many of them children who have been traumatized by sexual or physical abuse and have begun their recovery at the GreenHouse, an advocacy center for children, at 600 E. Morris St.
“The program has evolved over the years,” Partain said. “It started out pretty small, and it’s grown, rightfully so, as it should have. An offshoot of the program is the GreenHouse, which is an amazing thing. It’s helped thousands of children in our community, and the Victim/Witness Assistance Program has helped tens of thousands more people over the years.”
How does it work?
The Victim/Witness Assistance Program is basically a two-pronged program, Hoffmeyer said.
“We’re an information system, and we’re a support system. We are an information system to all victims — we send out letters to keep them updated on their cases, those that choose. We have a form they fill out asking if they would like to be involved, if they want us to keep them updated to the extent they choose because I feel like a victim has a right to be involved, or not, up to the point that they absolutely have to be. If they want to know everything, we let them know everything. If they want to know very little, we let them know as little as possible.”
The information often continues to flow for years after the original crime, even after the criminal is released from prison. “If he’s out and starts violating the conditions of his probation, for example,” Hoffmeyer said, “we’ll let the attorneys know so they can file to revoke his probation. Basically we help with any issues that a victim and their family have as they deal with the situation.”
The program also administers the Crime Victims Compensation Program, which provides funds for victims to help reimburse them for some of the expenses that are there solely because of the crimes committed against them. The funds come from fines on federal prisoners and some local prisoners.
“So none of it is tax money,” Hoffmeyer pointed out. “It’s all money that comes from offenders, and it’s held in a fund in Atlanta under the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Our program files the compensation application for the victims. Crime Victims Compensation only covers personal injury; there has to be some sort of an injury by assault or touching. Until this past year, stalking didn’t count, nor did a child who had witnessed the sexual or physical assault of another child.”
Hoffmeyer and others lobbied hard to get the law changed, and now it has been.
“Under the old Crime Victims legislation, the child who was sexually assaulted and abused — we could pay for therapy for him,” she said. “But the child who may have witnessed the whole thing and was forced to watch, we couldn’t pay because there was no physical injury to him. Now the law has been changed to include compensation for emotional abuse and stalking to help pay for therapy.”
A support system
The program also provides emotional support to crime victims. “We go to court with victims; we keep them in our office during the trials and bring them back and forth to the courtroom,” Hoffmeyer said.
Such support often begins in the minutes immediately after a crime is committed.
“We have a sexual assault component, for example,” she said. “We will meet the victims at the hospital and assist the nurse in the examination and meet with the police officers. We have counselors available at the GreenHouse, and we refer them for therapy. We help them with other things they may need — food, emergency needs, those types of things as we’re able.”
The program also has two advocates, who each cover two courtrooms, two judges. “The advocates go to court and keep up with all the cases,” Hoffmeyer said. “They assist the victims. They cover the witness rooms during the trial; they sit with them and take care of their families. They set up travel arrangements and deal with the parole board and get the restitution and compensation. They handle the victims of all types of crimes in their two courtrooms.”
A grant to hire a sexual assault response team advocate has just been received, and that person will cover all of the child and adult sexual assaults.
“She’ll keep up with their cases, do the tracking and send out the letters, make sure they have therapy if they need it,” Hoffmeyer said.
All staff members are on call to go to the hospital and help victims of sexual assaults.
“It takes three to four hours to do a sexual assault exam,” Hoffmeyer said. “We take the paperwork and tell the family who we are, and we are there with the nurse to assist with the exam. We’re there with the victim talking with her, trying to keep her calm — or him, sometimes it’s small children, males.
“From there we make the determination whether or not we need to go and do the videotape interview right then or schedule it the next day at the GreenHouse.”
Helping kids a big goal
The program provides tutors from Dalton State College for children who are abuse victims. “Many of these children who have been assaulted and abused get very far behind in their schoolwork,” Hoffmeyer said. “Part of our goal is to help them catch up and be able to live as children again. In fact, one of the mottos we use is ‘Help a Child Be a Child Again’ because the minute something like this happens, they lose their childhood. They are no longer children, and they have to deal with a lot of adult issues.”
Oftentimes, their families desert them because the person who is abusing them is the breadwinner and the mother and the other children stick with them for financial security.
“The mothers will often say, ‘Please don’t say anything because if you do, we’ll lose our house, we won’t have anywhere to go,’ that kind of stuff. So there are a lot of issues these children struggle with,” Hoffmeyer said.
“So one of the things we try to do is help them try to at least get back to the level of their schoolmates so they can function and compete in school. We did have one of our children who was behind in school and got tutored, to graduate from high school and be accepted at Dalton State. These tutors come in and work with these children, and they are great. That’s become a really big service for us. We just started that last year.”
The program also does group therapy for non-offending family members because they too are affected by the crime. “We do group therapy for the other family members and the other children who are not part of the problem,” Hoffmeyer said, “to help them understand the abuse, because if the victim is in therapy with one counselor, the others in the family need to understand what’s going on because oftentimes the other children say, ‘You know, it’s your fault. If you’d kept your mouth shut, nothing would have happened. We wouldn’t have lost Dad. Look now.’ They tell them it’s their fault.”
The nonprofit Friends of the GreenHouse board also helps try to normalize life for victims and their families.
“For abused kids and their families who would have no other Christmas,” Hoffmeyer said, “we do Christmas and we do it for every child in that family because we think the abuse affects the entire family and we just cannot provide Christmas for one child when there may be three others who wouldn’t have Christmas. We figured that out early on.”
Fortunately, the Friends of the GreenHouse board raises funds throughout the year to provide additional services for the abuse victims and their families. For example, they spent $7,000 on the Christmas party, with 75 kids taking part at a local church this year.
Can be a tough job
“There are days it’s really hard, and then there are days when you really do feel good about what you do,” Hoffmeyer said.
“Anytime we have a victim in this office, it means that somebody was injured. It doesn’t even matter when we win the trial, it’s still hard on the victims — not as hard as when you lose, those are the horrible ones. But even when you win, you know that somebody suffered terribly and so even the victory is hard.”
But it also means the victims can move on with their lives, “and oftentimes that’s what it takes,” she said. “A lot of times it’s just the fact that they understand that they’re not alone, that a lot of people have been through this and we can connect them with other victims who have been through similar things — although nothing is ever exactly alike — and let them talk to each other.”
Hoffmeyer gets satisfaction from seeing victims helping each other. “Like at the Christmas party, you see the mother of one child helping a child from another family with their plate and they sort of take care of each other because it’s a unique community — these victims are. They do tend to support each other and try to be there and unless you have been there, you can never understand what it’s like.”
A lot of times, just listening can make a difference.
“I have a lady now who calls me every few days because her friends are tired of hearing about it,” she said. “You know how people are. It’s not their fault; they keep telling her it’s time to move on, you need to go on. But you see, she has these anniversary dates, she has the trauma dates, the birthdays, or special things with that person, and she needs to talk about it. Other people don’t want to hear about it, so we do a lot of listening.”
The program office is hidden in a corner of the courthouse for a reason. “We’re back here so that victims can have a quiet refuge away from the system during the trial,” Hoffmeyer said. “We have family members during breaks in the trial when they are listening to horrendous testimony, they just want to get away. We keep food and coffee and drinks, and we’ll bring that back to them.”
After a trial, District Attorney Kermit McManus or one of the assistant DAs will explain what has happened and what will happen in the future with the Parole Board.
“We hold them in our office, and then the deputies will come and let us know when the offender’s family has left the courthouse. Then our investigators and our advocates will walk our families out and help them to their car and keep them away from the media if they want and help them get away,” Hoffmeyer said.
“Basically we are here to take care of the victims and to protect them from the time the crime occurs. There are times when they don’t like the sentence, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Even in those times when they are very unhappy with us, though, we still try to take care of them and support them because we understand, we know it’s hard for them. Our job is to help them cope with this.”
A Tragedy Without Ensuing Good
The family of Margaret Eaton can testify to the value of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program.
They went through the trial of Maurice Henderson, who was convicted of murdering Eaton on Christmas night in 1984, when there was no such program in Whitfield County.
“We went through a trial, we thought we were fairly educated, we didn’t have a clue, we didn’t know what to do,” Eaton’s cousin, Brenda Hoffmeyer, said. “We wanted to do something because you feel like when something like that happens, you need to do what you can to make sure the person who did this to your family member is brought to justice and you want to help the prosecution and do whatever you can.”
Unfortunately, two years later, the family had to go through the pain of a second trial after Henderson’s conviction was overturned in an appeals court.
This time, however, there was a Victim/Witness Assistance Program, which had just started in 1986 under Hoffmeyer’s guidance.
“That’s an interesting dynamic — to have a major case like we had without the program and then to have essentially the same case repeated with the program,” said Judge Jack Partain, who was then district attorney and had hired Hoffmeyer to lead the innovative program. “I remember the witnesses and the family of the deceased lady saying what a tremendous difference it was after the program was established and how much easier it was for them this time as opposed to the first time going through the process because they had so much information, they had somebody there for them. It was almost like they had a friend in court to sit with them, to help them through just a horrible, horrible ordeal. It was one of the worst crimes I’ve ever seen, period.”
That life experience made Hoffmeyer a natural for the job of leading the program when Partain decided to start it in 1986.
“Jack wanted somebody who knew the dynamics of victimization because he felt like you needed somebody who at least had been through the system and had dealt with some of these issues,” Hoffmeyer said, “and my background was pastoral counseling. I went to Columbia Seminary and had worked as a social worker and was working at Georgia Highlands when the murder happened.”
Hoffmeyer knows the program is valuable “because I honestly know what it’s like to go through a murder trial without the program and then with the program. It was hard because I was a victim and the director of the program. I set up the rooms and put all of our family in there. But it made all the difference in the world to have a place, a quiet place for them to come during the trial.”
But Hoffmeyer also knows that the pain for many crime victims doesn’t end with a conviction.
“The second trial, Henderson got two life sentences plus 20 years,” she said. “What happens to the victim is he becomes a part of your life. He’s a scummy, awful, horrible part of your life because he is always there and he is associated with you until the day he dies or you die. I used to say our family’s history was Maurice Henderson. That’s because when my aunt died, then it fell to her daughter and me to follow him and to make sure he didn’t get out, and to tell Margaret’s story. The family inherits these folks. They’re part of their lives for many years, and it’s horrible.
“So when I found out he had died a year and a half ago, you can’t imagine the relief that came, and it’s the same thing for other families, too.”
"I'm sorry": Frequently heard words
Those two words are constantly on the lips of Brenda Hoffmeyer and her staff.
“Somebody asked us one time, ‘What do you do? What’s your job?’ and I said, ‘We say I’m sorry all day. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry you have to be involved with us. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. I’m sorry you didn’t get the sentence you wanted. I’m sorry they’re still bothering you. I’m sorry’ – you just spend a lot of time telling them you’re sorry because they’re here through no fault of their own.”
“Here” is the judicial system and the Victim/Witness Assistance Program that Hoffmeyer has headed since its inception in 1986.
Most of the victims are thrown into the situation and don’t know anything about the judicial system.
“They don’t know what an arraignment is, they don’t know what a calendar call is, they don’t know what a preliminary hearing is, they just don’t understand, and it’s scary,” Hoffmeyer said. “It’s hard enough when you have to do jury duty to sit there – you know how hard that is. Can you imagine being a victim and going through this and trying to find out?”
For the victims of crime to have a friend and supporter as the case winds its way through court is the main goal of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program.
“We are just here for them and answer questions and do what we can for them,” Hoffmeyer said. “I am fortunate because I have a staff that’s been here a long time, and just about any of them can handle this and answer questions when I’m gone.”
The program has succeeded beyond Judge Jack Partain’s wildest dreams when he started it as district attorney in 1986.
“Anything good that’s happened since we started the program is because Brenda’s been in charge of it,” Partain said. “She’s one of the best I’ve ever seen with victims and witnesses. I can’t say enough good things about Brenda’s ability and her kindness and her empathy towards the folks who unfortunately are forced into this criminal justice system through no fault of their own.”
Current District Attorney Kermit McManus praised Hoffmeyer and her staff.
“They provide a valuable service to the victims of crimes in Whitfield and Murray, a service that is unavailable from any other source,” he said. “Prosecution-based victim advocates serve the victims of almost all of the various types of crimes we see. They assist them in understanding the criminal court process, advise them of court events, sometimes assisting them in getting to court, and helping them through the day when they come to court. Beyond that, they provide referrals to counseling for those who desire or need it, they assist in obtaining restitution for the losses suffered at the hands of the criminals, and they assist victims in accessing crime victim compensation funds from the state. Our victim advocates also assist certain crime victims in obtaining temporary protective orders to protect them from their abusers.”
Added McManus: “We are very fortunate to have knowledgeable and experienced victim advocates in the District Attorney’s Office. The service they provide to the citizens of Whitfield and Murray counties is immeasurable. I am very proud of our Victim/Witness Assistance Program. I deserve none of the credit for it as: 1) DA Jack Partain established it in 1986 and had the good sense to hire Brenda as the director. 2) Brenda has served in that capacity ever since that time, making her the second longest serving Victim/Witness Assistance Program director in the state.”
Victim/Witness Assistance Program
Brenda Hoffmeyer, director, 24 years
Karen Barbaree, courtroom/victim advocate, 17 years
J.J. Joyce, courtroom/victim advocate, 4 years
Isabel Pimentel, sexual assault advocate, 4 years
Ashley Vaughn, legal secretary (paralegal), 3 years
Kelly Snyder, courtroom/victim advocate, new
Laura Head, domestic violence advocate (attorney), 11 years
Terri Lambert, part-time therapist
Amanda Dellinger, part-time therapist
Katie McGlothlen, forensic interviewer
David Ramos, part-time sexual assault response team assistant
Pam Partain, GreenHouse director
Danielle Wise, Victim/Witness Assistance Program advocate