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Candidates divided over aid to victims

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GREENFIELD — As Michael Griffin and Brent Eaton enter the final stretch of their campaigns for prosecutor, both candidates maintain they are best equipped to serve victims of crime in Hancock County

Incumbent Griffin, who is running for a second term, says he has dedicated the past three years to making sure victims’ needs are being met. Eaton, who is running for the office for a third time, says more can be done to make sure victims’ voices are heard throughout the court process.

Griffin said communication with victims has improved during his tenure as prosecutor, and he also touts the establishment of a sexual assault response team to better serve victims of sex crimes. Griffin continues to work on a campaign promise from 2010, to bring a child advocacy center to the county.

“I’ve said from the beginning that I’m in this for the victims, and I’m in this for community safety,” Griffin said.

Eaton, a private defense attorney, says the prosecutor’s office has failed to put protocols in place that ensure victims don’t fall through the cracks as prosecutors tend to their primary duty – holding criminals responsible for their crimes.

Eaton points to the need for a victim advocate, a person whose sole responsibility would be to connect with victims on a routine basis, keeping them apprised of their rights, any upcoming court dates and resources in the community that might help them.

“I will tell you every single other prosecutor’s office I have been in in central Indiana has somebody in this position – every single one,” Eaton said. “We are behind just about every other place I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate, and people out here deserve better.”

Griffin doesn’t disagree that the county would benefit from a victim advocate, but the funding for one isn’t available, he said.

“We are very interested in doing that, but it comes down to a question of funding, and frankly, the funding hasn’t been there,” he said. “It’s hard to campaign on a promise of ‘I’m going hire this person’ when the ability to do that is not in your own hands. It’s in the county council’s hands.”

Since Griffin has taken office, he has added three new positions to fill needs in the office; an investigator, a child support case worker and a legal secretary. Adding a fourth position isn’t feasible, Griffin said.

Griffin added he has instituted policies aimed at improving communication with victims.

Deputies are instructed to contact the victim in a case before charges are filed. If the victim cannot immediately be reached, the deputy may proceed with filing charges but is then expected to reach the victim within seven days.

Prosecutors then seek the victim’s input throughout the process, Griffin said.

“We are filling that role until we can obtain funding to obtain a victim advocate,” he said.

Eaton said it’s unrealistic to expect a deputy prosecutor to maintain regular contact with victims about routine matters when their main objective is to build a strong case.

“I’m sure the people who are working there are probably working very hard, but… there’s only 24 hours in a day,” Eaton said. “It is not fair to them.”

Victim advocates have special training that makes them uniquely qualified for the position, Eaton added.

Aside from maintaining regular contact with victims to inform them of a case’s progress, they also have a working knowledge of resources in the community that might aid a victim or their family.

Deputies should not be expected to step into that role, as they won’t be able to fill it effectively, Eaton said.

“They’re not trained to be a victim advocate,” he said. “Those people are lawyers. They’re trained to be lawyers.”

Also, victims can be transient, which makes reaching them more difficult than the simple phone call a deputy has time for, Eaton added.

Griffin said while he is unable to hire a victim advocate, he continues with efforts to serve victims in other ways.

Namely, Griffin said he is moving into the final stages of establishing an agreement with a central Indiana child advocacy center to open a branch in Hancock County.

The details are still being ironed out.

“We do not have a decision of their board of directors, … but we have had discussions that have been very encouraging,” Griffin said. “This is something that I feel confident is going to happen.”

Griffin said when an agreement is in place, the county will still have a significant amount of fundraising ahead before the center can open.

Eaton disagrees with Griffin’s priorities, saying it makes more sense to have a professional advocate on staff before raising money for what could be a pricey new initiative.

“Out of all the things we could spend money on, (a victim advocate) seems something we should put higher on the priority list,” he said. “It seems to me that it’s pretty clear that that is the prosecutor’s responsibility.”

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