Standing by the family in court

The Baltimore Sun

Shirley Harbin has worked as director of the victim witness assistance unit for the Howard County state's attorney's office for the past decade. The job of helping crime victims prepare for court proceedings may prove stressful at times. To stay inspired, Harbin says she relies on her history with the office, her supportive staff and her passion for helping others through what sometimes proves to be the most painful experience they've ever faced.

Harbin oversees a staff of three - two victim advocates and a support staffer.

What do you do as a victim's advocate?

When we get a case, we touch base with the victims in all the cases just to see if they have any questions before the prosecutor gets ahold of them or talks to them, and if there's information we need to give to the prosector, we do that. We coordinate their appearance in court, we hold their hands, we walk through the system with them, explaining things. We also work closely with the prosecutors, scheduling interviews, meetings, going to court with them. I make referrals to individuals who have been victimized, to agencies such as the Domestic Violence Center, the STTAR [Specialized Trauma Treatment and Recovery] Center and other health care agencies that could do therapy or counseling. We also assist with relocation with funds from the state's attorney's office.

How did you get started with this job?

I started with the state's attorney's office back in 1981, as a secretary for the prosecutors. Then I was promoted to the state's attorney's secretary, and during the term of Marna [McLendon, former Howard County state's attorney], our victim witness coordinator position became open, and she asked me if I'd like to try it.

So what keeps you doing this?

I just love helping people. I can't say I try to make it easier for them, because in some of the cases, nothing makes it easy. I try to make it more comfortable for them, explaining the process and just being there to listen to them.

Is there a case or person who has particularly affected you?

There are so many. The murder cases - when the family's coming in the courtroom for the first time after their loved one's been killed and there's a trial or a hearing. The first time they see [the defendants], their reaction just breaks your heart. I've had parents react in different ways. Some have asthma attacks, some try to get to them. We've literally had to hold some parents down from getting to the person who killed their child. The manslaughter cases are the worst because [the defendants] don't get the time that the families feel they deserve.

What helps you through those difficult times?

Talking to the other advocates here. I try not to take it home because it does get to be so much, and I can't take that home to my family. So we just talk about it up here, and prosecutors are very good at talking things through.

Could you describe a typical day?

We come in, we get our things together for the day in court. We go down to court - if we have cases, then we try to stay with the victims or the families or witnesses. Then we coordinate them coming into the courtroom when their cases are called. If the attorneys need anything while they're at the table, we run and do that, get law books, get whatever they need, records. And then we come back here, make phone calls, answer questions, set up meetings, sit in on meetings with the prosecutors.

Have you ever wanted to quit?

I don't think I ever wanted to quit. I guess there was a time of two that you just get tired of working. And then I have all these cases, and I feel I can't leave them. It's hard to even take off a day when you know somebody's coming in that you worked with. You want to be there with them.

What's that like, having such an intimate connection with the people you're helping?

It feels good to help people. It's rewarding. I'm not there for them to say thank you - and they're all very appreciative - I'm just there to make it more comfortable.

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