An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Jay Howell, Esq.
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Jay Howell, Esq.
Interviewee:Jay Howell, Esq.;
Jacksonville, FL
Date of Interview:August 20, 2002
Location:Nashville, TN

Jay Howell, Esq.




Biography

Jay Howell was a former Florida State prosecutor who came to Washington in 1981 as the Chief Counsel to a U.S. Senate Investigations Committee. The Committee's work led to the passage of the first Federal Missing Children Act and the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Howell was a founder of the Center and served as its first Executive Director. He is currently a victims' rights attorney in private practice in Jacksonville, FL.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

In 1976 Jay Howell was a state prosecutor in Florida specializing in child abuse and sexual crimes prosecution. His work led him to become involved with domestic violence shelters and educating the community about child abuse.

Howell reflects:

"The first child abuse case I tried was the typical horror story, with the kid with 40 open wounds on their body. Temperature was about 40 degrees. Mom was nowhere to be found.

".....She was five. Working her case, getting to know her, putting her on the stand is what really started me thinking from a different perspective from that child's point of view towards the courtroom, the rules, the system.....of course it changed her life, because it took away her mother who had done this to her."

Howell left Florida to work for newly elected U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins in Washington D.C., where he spent the next two years working on the first Federal missing children's bill.


Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Howell reflects that as a prosecutor in the mid-1970s, victims were treated like evidence, and as something that needed to be "used" to get a conviction. He describes a system that evolved throughout the course of legal history in the U.S. in which there were only two parties in the courtroom -- the defendant and the State and any outside interference was not tolerated.

Greatest Challenge

Howell believes the greatest challenge he needed to overcome throughout his career has been changing attitudes. He reflects how there was a sense of complacency -- a total unwillingness to change the status-quo, which at the time did not tailor approaches in the courtroom to children.

"The biggest challenge a child faces in an American courtroom, now in the millennium, is being questioned with concepts and words that they do not understand."

Successful Strategies

Howell shares how the first Federal Missing Children's Bill was enacted into law. Florida Senator Paula Hawkins pushed it through the Senate, but the House opposed it. Howell and Hawkins contacted Linda Otto, a producer who had recently completed a "20/20" segment for ABC about missing children. Otto came to the hearing and set up her lights, "20/20" monitors, and cameras (although they were not even filming). Senator Hawkins and Howell assumed that members of Congress would support the legislation with cameras "rolling"-- and they were correct. The legislation passed.

Failures

Howell believes that there have not been many failures in the past, but rather that there will be challenges in the future. He feels that the movement has been powered by "compassion and committed people" and that is changing. Howell believes this change is due to the victim assistance field becoming larger and more successful, yet these changes have made the field too "enmeshed in the system."

Howell recalls a conversation between his brother, who worked for then-Governor and now U.S. Senator Bob Graham and was very well-informed about the system, and John Walsh shortly after the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Howell's brother shared with Walsh:

"Life is about to change for you. You've been outsiders pounding on the system trying to get things done. Now, you're insiders. You're in a part of a vehicle. You're attached to the government. You're a part of the system."

Howell believes that the same has happened with victim advocates, and although it is not a failure of the system, it will prove to be a challenge in the future because those embedded in the system are often not in a position to fight it.

Greatest Accomplishment

Howell believes that the passage of 33 state victims' constitutional amendments is the most significant accomplishment of the victim assistance field.

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Howell reminisces about times in the past that were very aggravating when people just did not "get it." He further explains that he views "maintaining the advocacy edge" as a challenge to the new activists to the victim assistance field. He believes that the "new generation" needs to know that

"people paid high prices to get us here in blood, sweat. I mean, look at the sacrifices that we're based upon. Look how many people made the ultimate sacrifice. Look at how many years and years we would come to conferences and the people you would see had hollow -- because they looked different. It's like a child who had been abused. You can see a different look in their eyes."

"I think life has told us that history is forgotten, sometimes, because people come in new. It's just the nature of anything."

Vision for the Future

Howell reflects:

"I think up until now, 2002, there has been a family fabric. We are a family. And it has been good. We fight like a family, but we've also been family. And I hope for these young people in the future that they got some of that family fabric that we do. Because it will sustain you in your time of need."

Greatest Fear

Howell does not have any fears for the future. He predicts that there will be "growing pains," but hopes that the victim assistance field will not move too far from its roots. He feels comforted that changes to the justice system that have occurred thanks to his generation's efforts will carry on through the next generation's experiences.

"I feel pretty good that the legal structure, the state amendments, and the statutes that are there, they're not going to evaporate. Nobody's going to take them off. The structure alone will save us. It may have been the smartest thing we ever did."