An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Betty Jane Spencer
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Betty Jane Spencer
Interviewee:Betty Jane Spencer;
Mooresville, IN
Date of Interview:July 20, 2004
Location:Mooresville, IN

Betty Jane Spencer




Biography

Betty Jane Spencer founded Protect the Innocent and Protect the Innocent Victims Foundation, victim advocacy organizations in Indiana. She lobbied for stronger victims' rights legislation at the state and national levels. She was one of the many crime victims who testified before the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime in 1982.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Betty Jane Spencer became involved in crime victims' rights during the early stages of the movement. On Valentine's Day, 1977, four armed men entered Spencer's home and robbed her of a few items and $40 in cash. The offenders then ordered the Spencers to lie on the floor and executed Betty Jane Spencer's son and three step-sons, and shot her in the back. Spencer pretended to be dead, but one of the offenders kicked her and shot her a second time, grazing her shoulder and skull. Spencer's testimony helped to convict all four offenders of murder, and they were each sentenced to life in prison.

Spencer wanted "to do something to make their deaths not in vain," and began working to help other people who have been victimized. She founded Protect the Innocent and lobbied for "stronger victims' laws and stronger criminal laws."


Interview Summary

Context of the Era

There were few victim advocates in 1977. Most victim service programs focused on domestic violence, and most advocates were volunteers, using their own resources to fund their work. "We really didn't have the people to train us at that time," recalls Spencer. "It was -- it was very -- well, kind of, you were on your own. But there was very devoted people. And we learned from each other."

"You no longer have victims' families sitting on one side of the hall in the courthouse and the perpetrators' families sitting looking at them and all those discomforts that we used to have. Those things have changed drastically. They may sound like small things, but they were big things to a victim. I can remember walking past David Smith's mother and the dirty look she would give me. He was one of the killers and she was acting as though I was hurting her child and here he had helped kill my child."

Greatest Challenge

Spencer identifies working through her anger as the greatest challenge she faced. "I was extremely angry. I was angry with everybody. I was very angry at God," Spencer states. Another challenge Spencer encountered was learning how to lobby. "We knew nothing about lobbying, but we had someone who did that helped us," Spencer recalls.

Successful Strategies

While lobbying, Spencer wore a pin of balanced scales of justice in "PTI," for Protect the Innocent. Spencer recalls that legislators would ask what the pin stood for, giving Spencer the perfect opportunity to talk about the organization and pending legislation they wanted passed.

"But the main thing is, don't give up. If it's important, go after it and stay with it. And learn to give a little bit. No, learn to ask for a little more than you'll settle for."

Failures

Spencer remarks that there will always be failures when lobbying, but even if a particular bill is not passed one year, it may be passed in following years. Spencer recalls trying to pass legislation that would allow victims to be present at clemency hearings:

"In Indiana at that time, if you wanted to get a bill through, you went to legislative services and told them what you wanted, had them write the bill. Then you took the bill and found the sponsor for it. So, I told them what I wanted I wanted the people notified and be able to attend parole hearings. And he looked at me so shocked and he says, `But that's against the law.' (Laughs) I said, `Yes, I know. That's why I'm here.'"

Greatest Accomplishments

Among the many accomplishments of Spencer's career, she recalls her encounters with the first juvenile victim she assisted, in the early 1980s. The victim became too dependent on Spencer and Spencer was able to encourage the victim to become more independent. The two are still friends.

Spencer also speaks about the importance of the 1984 Victims of Crime Act and Crime Victims Fund. "It was an important thing where there was funding for people. Before, there was people just spending great amounts of their own money to help other people."

"And I had opportunity to meet with President Reagan three times. And he was a very, very concerned president about victims and allowed us -- set before us and he said to me, he said, `You were a crime victim and so was I. But I was president. People took care of me. But people really didn't take care of you.'"

Name Recognition

Spencer discusses the importance of name recognition when lobbying. She recalls that Protect the Innocent gained recognition because of the ACLU's opposition to PTI's support of a particular bill. "And that was alright `cause sometimes you -- your enemies can help you more than your friends," Spencer states.

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

The key to the field's continued success is twofold: training and weeding out the advocates who do not have a capacity to care for the victims they serve. Spencer recalls the words of victim advocate Ruthann Popcheff: "You can train them and train them for everything but to care. And if you don't -- if you can't train them to care, you haven't gotten them ready."

Vision for the Future

Spencer would like to see all law enforcement officers trained on how to properly interview a victim immediately after the crime has occurred. She would also like all victims to be asked "What can I do for you?" because sometimes the victim's greatest need is not what the victim advocate would expect.

Importance of Faith

Spencer relates how important her faith was to her when dealing with the murder of her children. For four years, she was very angry with God and it took her a lot of counseling and time to work through that anger. She states her favorite passage of the New Testament, found in Thessalonians:

"Be happy in your faith at all times. Never stop praying. Be thankful whatever the circumstances may be. If you follow this advice you will be working out the will of God expressed to you in Jesus Christ."