CourtWatch Volunteer Explores the Role of KCSARC Legal Advocates

Blog post written by Andrea Martin, KCSARC CourtWatch Volunteer

I am Andrea, a CourtWatch volunteer at KCSARC. I observe and take notes on sentencings and other legal proceedings at the King County Courthouse. Over the last several months, I have wanted to learn more about different roles in the organization, especially the Legal Advocates I see in the courtroom with me and who help and support the victim.  I was given the opportunity to interview a Paulina Alvarado, a bi-lingual Legal Advocate at KCSARC.

Can you describe for me what a Legal Advocate does?
A Legal Advocate provides emotional support, referrals to other services, and legal information to the client (the victim) as well as the victim’s family. We stay connected to the client from the beginning to the end of the legal case. KCSARC has 12 fulltime Legal Advocates. They each work on 60 cases at a time, sometimes more.

You use the word “client” instead of victim or survivor, could you explain?
Yes, it’s because not every person who has experienced sexual assault identifies as a victim or a survivor, and sometimes they don’t identify with either. So to avoid giving out a label that a person might not want or feel, we use the word “client.”

How does a person first become connected to a Legal Advocate? 
It can happen a few different ways. Sometimes, a police officer gives the client our phone number when the first report is taken. Other times, the detective gives them our phone number (which comes several months after the police report). Also, the client finds out about our services from the Resource Line or they call our office directly.

Isn’t that a regular part of the police officer’s routine; they take down the report and then give the victim KCSARC’s phone number?
Well for one, they do not all know about our services, or have our information readily on hand. Also, they do not always know that the crime is a sexual assault case. Sometimes it can appear like domestic violence, child abuse, or something that doesn’t immediately say sexual assault. That can come up later during a longer investigation.

For a victim of sexual assault, what does the legal process look like?
It starts with the report. A police officer is called to meet with the victim and take a report on what happened. Next, the case is given to a police detective. The detective has more time to investigate the different aspects of the case: witnesses, other victims, locations of the crime, etc. Detectives gather the evidence that will be used to prove that the crime happened. Next, the evidence is handed over to the Prosecutor’s Office. They are now in charge of prosecuting the crime. This could turn into a trial (witnesses, defendant, lawyers, jury, and judge) or it could be a negotiation between the defendant and his attorney outside of court (no trial). Finally, if the defendant is found guilty, he will be sentenced and then serve out his punishment (in prison or a lesser condition).

Are you there for the whole process?
Yes, as soon as we are in contact with the victim, that person becomes our client. And we are with them until the sentencing.

When you say that you “are there” for the client, what does that look like?
It means we are there for them during every step of this legal journey. We give the client as much as support as they require. We can accompany them to make the first report (if they haven’t done so yet). We’ll also go with them to meet with a detective for the investigation. We speak with them a lot over the phone, answering questions, explaining legal terms, and comforting/supporting the client and the family. We will also accompany them to the trial and sentencing; we are there every step of the way.

What is seems to be hardest for the client? One big thing is the silence or a long “waiting time.” The client can file a police report on the assault and then not hear anything for months. So they just took this really big action, this big emotional step – and then not to hear a thing for months, it’s really difficult. They can feel forgotten about or abandoned.

Why is this “waiting time” so long? It takes time for the police report to be assigned to a detective and for that detective to start working the case. This can take several months. For the client, they filed the report and then nothing happens, no follow-up, no “a detective will be calling you in a month or so.” It’s just bewildering silence. And then out of the blue, they can receive a phone call saying, “A detective now wants to follow up with you and your case.”

It’s good that you are there to explain that the “waiting time” is normal. When does a case go to court and become an actual trial?

This is step three. Once the Prosecutor’s Office decides that there is enough evidence to show that the defendant is guilty, the case goes to trial.

The trial must be tough for the client. They will see their abuser there, correct?
Yes, the abuser (or defendant) has the right to be in the courtroom for the entire trial. However the client does not; they can only be in the courtroom when they are testifying. The same goes for the other witnesses. The reason behind it is so their testimonies stay consistent and untainted, so they are not affected by the recollections of other witnesses. The only people in the courtroom for the entire trial are: the judge, the jury, the defendant, their lawyer, and the Prosecutor.

How long does an average trial take?
It depends, but on average, I’d say 5 days. If there’s extensive evidence like videos, 911 calls, lots of witness testimony, or slower paced attorneys, then it can go longer.

What is Jury Selection like? Is it a quick or slow process?
It can take awhile because the attorneys on both sides need to find people who will make a decision based on just the evidence presented in trial. They do not want someone who may come into the trial with preconceived ideas about sexual abuse. Rather they want a juror that will clear their minds and make a determination on the facts raised in the trial and nothing else.

You mentioned that a surprising thing sometimes happens during Jury Selection?
Yes, a personal disclosure. That is, the attorneys will be asking their regular vetting questions such as, “Do you know anybody who has been sexually assaulted?” to the potential jurors. Suddenly, one of the jurors will take a long pause before answering this question. They will say, “Yes,” and then say, “Me.” This can be the very first time in their lives that they are disclosing that they are victims of sexual assault. It’s a very intense and powerful moment.

Here we are to choose a jury for one trial and another case was just disclosed. It happens to both men and women jurors. I was surprised how often this happened during jury selection.

Do some clients heal from trauma faster than others? Can you meet a client and have an idea if they will heal quickly or not?
I’ve learned in this job that I can never assume anything. For trauma, everyone reacts to trauma in their own way. Sometimes it’s related to the strength of their support system, but other times it’s not. It is really a personal process and all of us watch as the process unfolds in its own time. Trauma and healing really follow their own rules.

You have been doing this work for over 5 years. Does it wear on you? How do you take care of your own wellbeing while being surrounded by what looks like human suffering?

I’ve been a Legal Advocate for over 5 years now and I love it.

I might compare it to a doctor working with sick patients. The doctor gets to heal these patients, work closely with their hurts and pains to get them to a better place. This is how I see my work with clients. At our first meeting, they are scared, confused, embarrassed, and feeling weak. By the end they are empowered and have found their voice.



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