Dodd assumes victim witness coordinator role at CARES

Whitney Dodd has been promoted to the position of victim witness coordinator for the CARES organization in Big Horn County. Dodd began working for the organization as a victims advocate in May of 2014. Dodd is taking over the position for Vicki Collingwood, who previously held the position.

In her new position, Dodd will follow cases in both district and circuit court and occasionally in municipal court. She offers support throughout the legal process. Sometimes that support will include going over options, at other times, it could literally mean sitting next to the victim in the courtroom or speaking on their behalf.

“We try to make sure our victims are updated on their cases and know where they need to be and when,” said Dodd. “Sometimes with the court system, that can be a long process, depending on what the crime is. If it’s an aggravated assault, or something like that, it can be a year and a half from start to finish. So we try to help with any services our clients need during that process.”

Dodd is part of a four-member team at CARES that includes Dodd, two advocates and director Leslie Hoffman. The non-profit organization is funded almost entirely by grants. Though it mostly serves victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, it does serve victims of other crimes, as well.

“We show people what their options are and help them navigate through the system to get services,” said Dobb. “We don’t tell our clients what to do. They make their own decisions and we’re there to support those decisions.”

Dodd started her new position on July 1. She said, so far, she has spent most of her time in the courtroom. She said she attends literally all court arraignments, oftentimes notifying victims afterward of the services that are available to them. She also coordinates information with the courts, county attorney, the victim and other advocates.

Dodd worked previously as a social services aid for the Department of Family Services for around five years. She has an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Northwest College and is eight classes away from completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Wyoming. She also worked recently as a part-time and relief dispatcher for the Lovell Police Department for about 1½ years.

As an advocate for CARES for the past year, Dodd helped connect victims with services they needed like the local food bank, low-income housing, legal and counseling referrals and other services.

“Whitney has worked for Cares for more than a year and has come along very well as an advocate,” said Director Leslie Hoffman. “She is a huge team player, and I appreciate the way she takes initiative when helping our clients and she is just a great advocate all the way around.

“When this came open she was ready for the promotion and I’m so glad we could place her in this important position. We are very fortunate to have had her with us already. It would have been much more difficult to train someone from the outside.”

Dodd said she was also pleased with the promotion because she felt it allows her to continue to do work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

“I like what I do, I like the people I work with and I feel like I can make a difference,” said Dodd.

Dodd said many of the people she works with are dealing with a traumatic situation like domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Oftentimes they are in a position of having to make decisions that will have a big impact on their lives.

“We’re here to help victims survive whatever they’re dealing with and to get back on their feet again,” said Dodd. “That might mean going to court with them and walking with them through the process, getting counseling or whatever help they need.”

She added, at times that might include making really difficult decisions, like whether or not to report a crime.

“The big thing victims need to know is that they don’t need to report a crime in order to come in and get services from us,” said Dodd. “The service is free and confidential, and we can help them with whatever their decision is. For example, if it’s a sexual assault and the person is not ready to report it, we can help them by taking them up to the hospital for a rape kit, so, if they choose to report it later, they have that evidence.

“Right now one of the most important things is to let victims know that we’re out there and that CARES is a safe place to talk about their situation without being judged. I think it’s important for people to have someone they know is on their side, who will work with them.”

Dodd said she finds it very rewarding to help people and to do work that benefits the community. In addition to the satisfying work she does helping her clients, she said she hopes, through the organization, to raise community awareness about the prevalence of crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence.

“I think sexual assault and domestic violence is one of those topics our society has trouble dealing with,” said Dodd. “It’s ugly and no one wants to deal with it and people who are victims are afraid to report it because they are worried about what other people will think.

“Whether our community decides to stick their head in the sand or not, this type of violence is out there and it is out there in Big Horn County. The reality is we do have problems with domestic violence and we do have problems with sexual assaults here. It’s important for victims to know we are here to help, if they need it.”

Dodd said some clients come to CARES through referrals, some come into the office, which is located at the Lovell Police Department. She said many are notified of the services available to them through the victim witness coordinator’s work in court.

Dodd noted that it sometimes takes a victim of domestic violence several times before they are actually able to leave a bad situation. She said, though that can be frustrating at times, the advocates at CARES understand that big life-changing decisions don’t come easily.

“Sometimes they’re not ready and that’s OK,” said Dodd. “We just want them to know we are here if they need our help. We’re here to help them figure out their options. It’s up to them to make their own decisions. We don’t make decisions for people or even encourage them to make decisions one way or another. If a domestic violence victim chooses to go back, we leave them alone. We leave it up to them to contact us again if they need our help down the road.”

Though CARES advocates mostly work with victims of domestic and sexual assault, their services are available to all victims of crime.

CARES has worked closely with law enforcement to help victims of domestic, sexual and other forms of violence for more than 25 years. In the fiscal year 2014, CARES helped 240 victims of crimes. Of those victims, 151 were female and 88 were male. One gender was listed as unknown. One hundred forty-one of those victims were in the 25-59 year-old age group, 39 were under the age of 17, 26 were ages 18 – 24, and 34 were 60 years of age or older. 

CARES provides help with everything from obtaining legal protection orders to emergency financial assistance to the many victims they serve.

For more information call 307-548-2330.

By Patti Carpenter