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Regional program offers help to crime victims

READY TO HELP — The Hancock-Brooke-Ohio Victims Assistance Program is staffed by clockwise, from left, Jennifer Mollock, who oversees the program and coordinates its services in Ohio County; Erica Gump, Hancock County coordinator; and Brandon Kaufman, Brooke County coordinator. -- Warren Scott

WELLSBURG — For more than 25 years, a regional nonprofit group has aided as many as 1,000 area children and adults each year, but it’s not one that many area residents think about.

That’s because few people expect to be the victim of a crime, say the three coordinators of the Hancock-Brooke-Ohio Victims Assistance Program, but they want everyone to know they’re ready to help should it happen.

The program was launched in Wellsburg through the efforts of former chief Brooke County probation officer Jim Lee and former Brooke County prosecutor David B. Cross, but it’s expanded through the years to include offices in Hancock and Ohio counties.

And it’s available to crime victims of all ages and from anywhere, provided the crime was committed in one of the three counties.

Jennifer Mollick, who oversees the program and coordinates its services in Ohio County, noted aid to the crime victims ranges from helping them to secure funds for the treatment of injuries to arranging counseling, by professionals under contract to VAP, to aid them in dealing with the emotional impact of a crime.

“It can have a major impact on people their whole life, but it’s not something tangible,” said Mollick.

She said in addition to people who have been physically assaulted or emotionally abused, she has encountered people who, following a burglary, find it uncomfortable to be in their own homes.

Mollick said the counseling is available for primary victims of a crime and to secondary ones, such as children whose parents’ behavior has been affected by the crime.

She and Brandon Kaufman, Brooke County coordinator for the program, and Erica Gump, its Hancock County coordinator, have served as intermediaries for crime victims, accompanying them to court hearings when needed and aiding them in applying for financial aid from the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

Administered by the state Legislative Claims Commission, the fund was established with court fees paid by convicted criminal offenders.

And through it, crime victims have received limited compensation for economic loss caused by their injuries and reimbursement for eyeglasses, dentures and prosthetic devices damaged in the crimes.

Funds aren’t available to recoup stolen property or money.

Claims for compensation must be filed within two years of the crime, which must have been reported to law enforcement, or no later than two years after the victim’s 18th birthday if the crime occurred when he or she was a child.

Mollick said domestic violence and other assault cases account for a large number of those she aids.

“Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of child abuse cases,” said Kaufman.

Gump said child neglect is common because of parents who are addicted to opioids.

She said even after the children have been removed from their homes, often to be raised by their grandparents, their parents’ actions still have an impact.

Gump said during the pandemic last year, the three continued to provide services, going to victims’ homes when they were needed and when it was safe to do so.

She noted the program faces a financial challenge with a significant drop in funding from the federal Victims of Crime Act fund.

The program has benefited from free office space provided by local government entities and occasional local grants and fundraisers, but the VOCA fund covers wages for the three, who are its sole staff, travel expenses and office supplies.

Mollick noted it allows them to aid victims while they await assistance through the state compensation fund, which can take up to six months.

Established in 1984 with fines and court costs paid by convicted offenders, the VOCA fund has supported thousands of programs aiding victims of crime throughout the United States, including shelters for abused women and child abuse treatment centers.

The amount of the fund has fluctuated through the years, but it has dropped from $17 million last year to $5 million.

The decline has been blamed on a rise in out-of-court settlements, often linked to white-collar crimes charged of large businesses, for which financial restitution has gone into general funds and not the VOCA fund.

This summer Congress passed legislation directing such money into the VOCA fund and implementing other measures to restore the VOCA fund during the next few years.

To offset that gap, U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have announced $8.5 million in federal Department of Justice funds will be available to provide grants for such programs.

The three VAP coordinators have made plans to seek the support of state legislators and local officials in ensuring such funding is available to continue the same level of services.

The group has employed various fundraisers in the past and currently is selling books containing hundreds of coupons for numerous area businesses and attractions for $40 each.

It can be ordered at any of its three offices: (304) 737-2515 in Brooke County, (304) 564-4277 in Hancock County; and (304) 234-3896 in Ohio County.

Each of the three has worked in the program for about 10 years and said while they regularly interact with people at a very difficult and stressful time in their lives, they take satisfaction in being able to help.

Michael Traubert, who has served on the program’s board of directors since 1993, said, “All three of them are the most wonderful people I’ve been associated with.”

He added, “I think this is a tremendous program or I wouldn’t have stayed in it all of these years.”

Traubert said it provides a vital service because crime is non-discriminatory, affecting people of all ages and economic backgrounds. He noted anyone may be robbed or struck by a drunk driver, for example.

Mollick said often the emotional impact of a crime lingers beyond any physical harm to the victim. “I find a lot of people who say, I thought I could put it behind me,” she said, adding the work of the Victims Assistance Program is to help people cope with both levels.

“That’s what we’re here for — to help people get to that point where they see they were a victim but now they’re a survivor,” said Mollick.

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