An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Rhonda Barner
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Rhonda Barner
Interviewee:Rhonda Barner;
Dayton, OH
Date of Interview:January 10, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

Rhonda Barner

Director, Montgomery County Victim/Witness Division




Biography

Rhonda Barner is the Director of the Victim/Witness Division of the Montgomery County Prosecutor's Office in Ohio, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

In 1975, Rhonda Barner was a criminal justice major at the University of Dayton when she began her senior year internship at the Montgomery County Prosecutor's Office, Victim/Witness Division. After her graduation, she accepted a position with the program and planned on working for a few years before going to law school. She soon realized that she had the "best of all worlds" with her job and "practicing law didn't hold the excitement and glamour that I once thought it had." She liked working with crime victims and being part of a growing field, so she never completed law school; Barner has been a victim service provider for nearly two decades.


Interview Summary

Context of the Era

The Victim/Witness Division actually began as a rape crisis center, which became part of the Montgomery County Prosecutor's Office after its first year of funding was reduced. The prosecutor, Lee Falke, saw the value of the program and the possibility of expanding its services to include any victim or witness of crime. While continuing to provide sexual assault services around the clock, Barner and her colleagues worked to change attitudes. What they found was that Falke's vision was not shared by law enforcement, judges, or the defense bar. It took a long time to "prove that there was value and merit to what we were doing and that it was a necessary service."

"We found ourselves day in and day out, you know, really battling for victims because nobody knew what services were available, nobody knew what to do and a lot of people weren't welcoming us in with open arms."

Greatest Challenge

Barner recalls her greatest challenge was working with law enforcement on sexual assault cases. Using volunteers, Barner and her colleagues responded to the hospital to help sexual assault victims in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Often they would meet with the officers handling the investigation and would encounter "very antiquated" ideas about sexual assault. It was difficult to get the officers to be open-minded. Barner began training law enforcement and recalls what it was like training at a police academy in the mid-1970s:

"So I remember going to police academies and doing trainings and basically getting booed out of the room or harassed out of the room by a lot of old time cops who just said, 'you know, I've been doing my job for years and you can't tell me how to do it', and not understanding that we weren't trying to tell them how to do their job, but we were trying to give them skills to get better information."

Barner notes that now that she and other victim advocates are certified as trainers by the Ohio State Police Training Academy and Dayton Police Department.

"It took a long time to get law enforcement and prosecutors to understand that what we were doing ... would help them have better witnesses and ultimately help their investigation and help the prosecution of their case."

Successful Strategies

Working in a system-based program, Barner has employed the strategy of being a person who is there to help law enforcement officers and prosecutors do their jobs. Unlike community-based advocates who can often be more aggressive in their advocacy, Barner has found the most success when she has worked within the structure in place. She relates her approach as "showing your worth and value by having a door open to you that you can then expand, and say 'okay, you know, I see what you're doing, I see how you're doing it, what about this, how about... if I help you here'?"

Failures

While Barner thinks the failures have been minor, she does cite two that are related and need attention -- funding and training. Barner experienced first-hand the effects of funding cutbacks when in the early 1980s, programs all over Ohio closed because of a lack of funding. The creation of VOCA certainly helped address the funding problem, but she is now concerned about the effect a cap on the Fund will have on existing programs.

The availability of funding is tied to the other failure from Barner's perspective -- the lack of funds committed for ongoing training programs for new victim service providers and those with more experience in the field. Barner links the availability of training to victim advocates being recognized as trained professionals. In her mind, "there is a need for people to recognize that not anyone can be a victim advocate. There has to be training, there has to be a passion for providing the services (that) victim advocates provide."

Greatest Accomplishment

The availability of quality training for victim service providers is a passion for Barner. She acknowledges that although she studied criminal justice, sociology and psychology in college, there were "many things about victim services and victim advocacy that I didn't know because there was nowhere to get that." Barner credits NOVA with creating some of the first comprehensive training programs for victim service providers. She helped developed the Ohio Advocate Network, which promotes training and registration of advocates. Barner believes that if someone has the passion to provide victim services, they don't necessarily need a college degree, but they do need training. In her program, staff members do not start working with crime victims until they've had 20 hours of training in basic victim advocacy.

"I certainly feel that I myself over the years have learned from a lot of my clients. I learn how to better provide services by listening to what my clients say, what their needs are. And the best way that I can then teach my staff is not just through the trainings that are there, but as a practitioner myself, helping to ensure that the training grows to address the new and different issues that come about."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

One of Barner's primary concerns is the availability of funding that will "keep programs secure" and "give them the opportunity to expand." Over the years, Barner's program has been successful in securing funding from diverse sources, which has allowed her to expand her staff. Unfortunately, diminishing funding does not equal a diminishing demand for services. Barner also sees credentialing as an integral part of the professionalization of the field.

Vision for the Future

Barner would like to see advocates recognized as professionals. "It would be wonderful to have our field recognized in a way that says, you know, when a victim advocate comes in, they are not challenged for their credentials, that they're recognized for the value and merit of what they do and for their voice," she said. Barner would also like to see consistent funding on the local level, but also on a global level. As a certified NOVA crisis responder, Barner and many other members of the Ohio Crisis Response Team were sent to New York and New Jersey to assist after the September 11th attacks. Barner sees this type of response on an international level as a part of the future of the field.

Greatest Fear

Barner's greatest fear is that the goals she envisions will not be accomplished. She fears that future leaders will not see the value in victim services and therefore make decisions that detrimentally affect the survival of programs. Barner recognizes that "people who started the field.....who've been around a long time, will eventually be out of the field and that the people coming in won't take it on with the same kind of fervor and passion." Barner encourages new service providers to approach the job with passion, to recognize that they will be affecting people's lives, and to listen to victims and address their needs. Barner also wants experienced service providers to remember to mentor the new service providers, to be role models and to promote the passion and interest to learn more.

"... the legacy that we're leaving for them is that there are so many people who are just phenomenal in what they do, and we can look all across the country at true leaders in victim services, and that should be a catalyst and inspiration for the new people, not a source of dread and fear like, 'oh, I'll never measure up'."