An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Jay Howell, Esq.
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Seymour: All right. I am Anne Seymour. I am the Director of the Office for Victims of Crime Oral History Project.
Howell: My name is Jay Howell, I'm an attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, representing crime victims and children.
Seymour: Jay Howell....when, why, how did you first get involved in the crime victim's movement?
Howell: I was a state prosecutor in Florida. I specialized in child abuse and sexual crime prosecution.
That's when I started. I started to work with the community agencies, the first domestic violence shelter -- of course this was back in 1976, 77, when I started.
Seymour: And what led you to get more specifically involved in working with crime victims?
Howell: I did a lot of child abuse cases. What I started doing was going around the community talking about child abuse. Because the first child abuse case I tried was the typical horror story, with the kid with forty open wounds on their body. Temperature was about 40 degrees. Mom was nowhere to be found.
Getting into that -- 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 toward the courtroom, the rules, the system and what it -- of course it changed her life, because it took away her mother who had done this to her.
Seymour: And, did that lead you on the path...I know you had a lot to do to the area of missing and exploited children? Can you tell us a little about how you went down that path?
Howell: I left prosecution in Florida and went with a newly elected Florida Senator, Paula Hawkins, to Washington. She had an investigation subcommittee. She was the chair of it as a new Senator.
We started investigating-- tracking serial murderers, child pornography, different kinds of things. But we focused for about two years on missing children. She wrote and passed through the Senate almost by herself, the first Missing Children Bill.
We conducted extensive hearings into missing kids and out of that work her investigative office became a national center. We would get calls from all over the country -- parents searching for their children, law enforcement training issues, trying to put any system together.
Because in the beginning -- I remember when I first sat down with the head of the FBI's National Crime Computer and he [SIC] said there's less than 100,000 persons -- most of which are children -- in this system, because law enforcement just isn't using it.
Of course, now if you ran that system in 2002 -- it's got about eight or 900,000 in it, most of whom are children.
Seymour: You were the first Director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids. Could you talk about how that got authorized and who was involved and what some of the challenges were that you faced?
Howell: The center was created when Al Regnery, who was the head of the office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention -- called me at the Senate -- because we had done all these hearings and this work, legislative work, and become kind of a junior center ourselves for people from all over the country.
He said, what do you think needs to be done on this issue. We've decided to put some money into it to -- the Justice Department has. I want you to give me a laundry list of six -- your top six items of what you think should be done.
I immediately called Robbie Callaway with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, an insider Washington pro, and said, "What do I do with this?" And Robbie said, "This is serous. This means they're going to do something serious, so be careful."
I sent over a list of six items, including a national resource center, an 800 line where people could report, some resource to distribute pictures of missing kids, training for law enforcement on sex crimes against children, things like that.
Sent it over. In less than a week later, Al Regnery called back and said, "We're going to do the first four items on your list." Now, you could have knocked me over pretty easily then. I knew that was a substantial monetary commitment.
And -- and I was surprised, because up to that point it was all -- you know, people had posters of their own missing kids. One law enforcement agency up the road didn't know a child was missing -- when a child was missing.
And now when I see Amber Alerts and interstate dissemination of information about children, it's -- it's scary. So much has happened in such a short period of time.
I think the people who work in these issues sometimes lose grasp of the fact that it has been night and day inside of 30 years. In the history of time, these problems have existed, kids being abused, sexual assault, crime victimization.
But the progress has been made and the technology -- for instance on the issue of missing children, I remember when we ran the first nationwide pictures of missing kids. It was the end of the first movie, ADAM. That we had done some television movies about this. Where they had actors playing us.
And at the end of it, NBC committed to running 60 pictures of missing children in prime time. Now that had never been done. We didn't have a Center at the time. We were still in the Senate running investigations.
So, we contracted with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to answer a phone that night, having no idea, frankly, whether anyone would call on that phone, at the end of that two hour broadcast.
And, of course we were there and waiting and, you know -- good leads and -- and over a dozen kids ended up being found after that. But we had no idea going into it whether it would even work as a technique.
Of course, not only is it an accepted technique for finding missing children, it's located over 700 wanted fugitives. America's Most Wanted sprung out of the concept of looking from -- sprung from the concept of looking for missing children.
Seymour: This might be a weird question, but who started putting kids pictures on milk cartons?
Howell: Actually it started before the Center existed and there were a couple of organizations involved in it, traditional child safety organizations who distributed it.
They ended up putting them on wine bottles. There were a lot of different things. And it was somewhat controversial. I remember testifying once in front the Senate or the House and I had the wine bottle with me.
And I said, you know, maybe this isn't appropriate. And I felt bad, because later I found out that the guy who did that was a very dedicated and decent human being who was trying hard to do what he thought was the right thing.
And I went on national television and said maybe we shouldn't go this far, because we were concerned about scaring children.
We felt we could look for children without putting it on the kitchen table in front of them at breakfast, which did concern us. Kids -- one of the most primal fears of kids is the fear of separation from their parents.
It's basic and fundamental in their nature. And we were always worried about that. Although it has also located children.
These were tough, because in the early days I can remember being hauled over to the Department of Justice and told -- in fact, there's a nationwide program for pictures that still exists that I said no to when it was first proposed.
It was tough for us to figure out our way through all of this. We didn't know everything we know now. We didn't know what would work. We didn't know what would be too much. We just kind of plodded ahead as -- naive ignorance.
Seymour: You mention Robbie Callaway...can you talk about some of the early pioneers?
Howell: Paula Hawkins set the tone. There was no doubt about. She passed the Missing Children's Bill, she passed the Missing Children Assistance Act that more formally set up the center as an entity.
Of course, Al Regnery in the Department of Juvenile Justice started this ball rolling, a fact that's very rarely mentioned. We had good people who were working with us. There were parents like John Walsh and Faye Walsh. And Julie and Stan Patz from New York City, Etan's parents.
Camille Bell from Atlanta. They were all well known cases at the time. The Atlanta child murders, Etan Patz -- missing from New York City -- and they worked of course as a host of organizations -- Robbie Callaway helped immeasurably inside, in Washington in telling us.
Because we were -- really were outsiders in terms of the Beltway -- what to do and how to do it -- and, you know, I think -- somebody asked me here, did you ever stop back and say, you know, this has happened so fast. Because it really did get going fast as a public issues in the media and all that.
And I said, you know, I -- when we did the first Rose Garden Ceremony for the signing -- Ronald Reagan signed the first Missing Children Act, 82 -- well, the White House had told me on Friday, we're going to do this Tuesday morning. Monday was Labor Day or some holiday. You invite all the people to the -- and set this thing up.
So, I said, okay, and I sent out all these invitation from the White House -- a mailgram in those days -- I don't know if they still do -- come to this Rose Garden Ceremony.
Well, then I went over to drop that off on Friday evening, or Saturday, at one of Reagan's top staff people in Northern Virginia. And I said, "Do you want me to put anything down for the President or anything, since I've been working on this a long time, I know all the people who will be in attendance."
And they said, "Yeah, why don't you draw up something for the President and leave it at the Old EOB speechwriter's address on Sunday afternoon" or something. So, I go by and leave it at this thing.
And then Tuesday morning we're in the Rose Garden and the President starts talking about this. And then he starts saying words that I had written. And I said, there's something wrong with a country that gives somebody like me this much power [LAUGHS], you know.
And the only other time I felt that way was when we had the talking Teddy Bear, Teddy Ruxpin and he -- Teddy gave us a lot of money and agreed to do child protection messages to kids like nobody should be touching you in the bathing suit areas of your body and stuff like that.
So, I wrote a whole script for Teddy that they had sold with him on a tape. The first time I ever heard Teddy Ruxpin say what I had written, I felt about the same way I did when the President did. I said, there's something wrong -- when they give somebody like me [LAUGHS] that much access.
Seymour: What was it like when you first became engaged in victim assistance?
Howell: Let's see it was the -- it was be -- there's a before and after that's pretty clear a line of demarcation. I think history will regard that as a line, a line being drawn in the late 70's on a variety of issues.
I can remember -- we treated -- when I was a prosecutor -- victims pretty much like an objective object, like fingerprints, evidence, something that we needed to use to get our conviction, but that was in the way much of the time.
And it was a mindset that had developed because of the country's, by then, 200 year history of having public prosecutions, not private ones by the victims.
So the system had evolved into just two parties, the defendant and the State and they pretty much looked unkindly toward any outside interference. And that's what the state of the -- of the courtroom was then.
A kind prosecutor or a good judge would come along occasionally, but input formal into the system was virtually non-existent. Sometimes it was brutal. And, you know, the single person whose life has been most upended by a violent crime is standing way back far from the center, the core of activity. And -- with the system in the middle basically keeping them at arm's length.
It was pretty bad. And it's changed so dramatically, I think we tend to say well, we haven't done that much. We need to go farther. We've got to do things.
It's -- to have the single barometer that tell us how far -- to have over 30 states pass a state constitutional amendment in this kind of time frame -- because those didn't really start. I think we had the first meaningful one, probably. They had other Bills of Rights. We had the first meaningful one in Florida.
Went on the ballot in November of 88 and 90 percent of the voters in Florida voted for it, because it was worded so they could understand it. We were scared about that. We had no money. We made a deal with the trial lawyers to give us $10,000. We had no publicity, but the concept was appealing to the voters, so it went through.
Well, when you have over 30 states -- have amended their fundamental governing document, their con -- state constitution -- to put this in -- there are very few issues -- concepts that have moved forward to formal recognition as quickly in our society from its inception. It really is pretty striking.
Seymour: When you were working with Missing and Exploited Children, what was the greatest challenge you and your colleagues faced in affecting change?
Howell: Attitude. There was a complacency. People didn't see a role too much for parents. Law enforcement thought well, these kids have run. We need to make sure that they're not a run away before we do anything to look for them.
We did investigate hearings in the Senate into the practices that existed at that time. Kids weren't listed in the national computers that were available to search. There was no sophisticated training on crimes against children, sexual exploitation, kids in court.
One of the main efforts of the Center in the first years, 84 to 87, when I was there, was we went state to state, to the Albanys, the Sacramentos, the Tallahassees, the Austins to lobby for a whole host of legislation that's now pretty common.
Background checks on people who work with children to make sure they're not convicted crime people, child abusers, violent people, screening of people who work with kids, getting film processors to report it when they see child pornography, helping kids in the court so they can be questioned in words and phrases that are appropriate to the age of the child.
And so 8 year old kids aren't asked, "Can you identify the perpetrator?" An 8-year-old girl was asked that in a courtroom and of course she just hung her head, because she doesn't use the word identify.
I tell that story to adults, some of them say, "Oh, I get that, she doesn't know what a perpetrator is." I said, "Well, it's not just a perpetrator. She also doesn't use the word identify."
And the court, of course, is loaded with that: prior to, state the facts with reference to whether or not -- when you went down to that guy's house at the end of the corner that you told us about and he opened the door to you, was there anybody else in the room.
That's got about eight concepts in it. That's pretty much common in courtrooms and kids are still victimized. That's one of the big challenges -- 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.
So, two states have laws to address that. We need all 50 and then those two that have it -- Florida and California -- need to enforce it, because they don't.
Seymour: What are some of the strategies that you employed?
Howell: We just did a tribute to Paula Hawkins and all the work that she did. And one story I forgot to tell and I should have.
We're pushing the Missing Children's Bill, the first one, she was pushing it through the House and the Senate. She was a Senator. The Senate approved it. The Senators were in favor of it. We sat around the table with Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond and Arlen Specter and Paula Hawkins and Dennis DeConcini. And on the other side were the House people, Don Edwards of California. They opposed the bill did not want the dad gummed thing to go into law, which was a pretty benign piece of legislation, allowing parents to ensure their kids were listed as missing in the national crime computers.
Well, during this, we knew that the House was against it. We knew they were probably going to fight it. Linda Otto, a producer who later did the two Adam movies had just done -- we had just met her.
And she had done a 20/20 piece as an independent producer on missing kids, because it was getting news attention back then on missing children.
So, we knew Linda. Linda happened to be in Washington filming. So, she brought over her cameras, set them up in the conference room where the House and the Senate -- all the lights like lighting up the room -- so that the members of the House knew they were on television and a documentary was being made with their votes.
Had it all set up. She had the 20/20 monitors in there. There was no film in those cameras.
Seymour: [LAUGHS] that's great.
Howell: It worked. And that's sometimes what you have to do when you -- we knew that would persuade them perhaps on the record and in the light of day to be more [unclear].
Because I can remember Arlen Specter leaning over the table and saying, "Don -- to Don Edwards -- why exactly do you not want this to become law," you know.
So, in fact, the irony of that is that years later when we had the Center and after the Bill had passed -- we were going around on Capitol Hill with Teddy Ruxpin. Because Teddy had given us a lot of money and Don Kingsborough, the head of that company was really kind to us.
And we were going on -- I happened to walk by Don Edwards' office. After opposing the Missing Children Bill -- and he had been -- he was still in Congress at that time. When we walked in, there as nobody in his office.
So, I took Teddy Ruxpin, the doll I had, the little Teddy Bear and I set Teddy in Don's office and took a picture in his chair.
Seymour: Have there been any failures in our field?
Howell: You know, it's interesting there haven't been many. I think the future holds maybe the biggest challenges. Because you cannot say objectively that this movement -- and it is a movement -- because it's powered by compassion and committed people.
And now it has changed. It has changed fundamentally since the mid-70s, because it's part of being successful. We got bigger, we got better, we got more jobs, we got more positions.
Prosecutors offices, police departments have advocates. They never had that before. And as a result of that we have become more enmeshed in the system.
I can remember when we got the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And my brother who had worked for Governor Graham and Senator Graham and new a lot about the system sat down with John Walsh and I and said, "Life is about to change for you two guys.
'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." Same thing happened to victim advocates, because it changed in the last 15 years.
We've got these people placed, but they also work for the government and therein lies the rub. It is difficult to advocate freely and completely when you are in the public sector.
I can remember at a NOVA conference several years ago, we were talking about creative prosecution things for kids and investigating crimes against children and what to do.
And this advocate came up to me afterwards and she said, "I work for a District Attorney who won't do this -- won't do these things." And I talked to him. And I said, "Well you have to be careful, because you're walking a tightrope.
'We don't want to lose you to the movement because you have fallen off the tight rope because he got rid of you or limited or changed your duties, because you pushed too hard."
It is very difficult inside the government, inside an agency, and institution -- you can't freely advocate. I say often to people they probably wonder why I say it, because it doesn't make much sense -- I say, I'm in the private sector. The reason I say that is because I was in the public sector for a long time.
But being in the private sector has so much more freedom over what you're able to do. And you're limited when you're in an agency or a part of the government or even in a community-based victims' rights organization.
It isn't easy to know how far you can go over that bridge before you look around and you find out it's in ruin because you burned it. There's no bridge left, because you burned it.
And then all of a sudden, how many of our good friends have been cast adrift out there for -- who are no longer with us, no longer working in the field.
Seymour: One greatest accomplishment?
Howell: Well, the single greatest success is the Constitutional Amendment. Ask me a hard one. To me, I mean, I'm a lawyer. I'm immersed in the system, but I -- I got to go into court. And most of the time when I go into court for a victim, they say what about standing right off the bat.
Well, when you have amendments and things like that, that covers those bases. So, I think there's no doubt that we have done -- we got real good laws. State to state, they're amazing and we've got amendments that back them up and give them weight.
That is the power and that also -- I think the second challenge -- the first challenge, I was alluding to earlier, for the future is keeping the keen edge, the sharp blade of advocacy while we grow more and more into the system and our people do.
And the second one is enforcement. We've got real good laws. State to state we've got excellent laws. It's night and day from the way it was 25 years ago. But enforcing that in reality, in the real courtroom, having those rights mean something, that's going to be the millennium challenge I think -- is -- is those two things.
Keeping the advocacy edge and enforcing what's out there. We got good stuff.
Seymour: Newbies in the field, buffalo chicks, those who haven't been around that long, what advice can you, Jay Howell, give to these folks?
Howell: This is tough, because life I think has told us that history is forgotten, sometimes, because people come in new. It's just the nature of anything.
I can remember John Walsh and I going back to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate to lobby for a successor Missing Children Bill, probably the Missing Children Assistance Act or something after we had left up there.
And this guy we were pounding on, who was a staff attorney for the Judiciary Committee and we were pounding on him to pass something. He said, "Well, let me tell you something, we've done a lot of work on the kind of stuff you're talking about, let me show you."
He took us into the archive, conference room, went up in the wall and pulled the hearing on serial murders that I had done with Senator Specter and Senator Hawkins about four years before that.
And he said, "You see what I mean. We've done a lot on this."
Well, John and I -- of course, John would get pretty aggravated and it was amazing that nobody ever got punched out. Somebody said to me recently, "you know, John's pretty volatile and he believes so strongly. Did it ever come close?"
And I said, "Yes, it came close many times when I thought he was going to deck somebody he'd get so aggravated." And of course he had suffered the ultimate loss of his child.
And the interviewer who was asking me this said, "Well, did you -- did you hold him back?" And I said, "No, some of those people needed punching out." You know, we had to advocate -- here we are advocating violence -- but we weren't and of course we didn't.
But it was pretty aggravating to be condescended to in those times. And I think the only challenge to the new people in the system maintain the advocacy edge.
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's been abused. You can see a different look in their eye. Their eyes don't have the life that other children's eyes have.
Well, don't forget that as this thing gets bigger that it was based on that and there were individual citizens who laid themselves open and exposed themselves and their pain in order to get things done.
Their names -- some of them are well-known to us, some of them are names that are not known at all to us -- about people who started things moving when nothing was going on -- raised their hand and said I don't like the way this is going. You need to treat me better. I don't think I'm going to be leaving until you do something for me, or my family.
And I think being mindful of our history is important because so much has happened in these three decades. Really that's -- what is it 25 years, really -- 28 -- that anything's existed in this field.
I remember a friend of mine, Andrew Vachss, who's a lawyer who writes novels about child abuse and stuff. And we were doing a book signing and he said, we have come farther in the last 30 years in terms of the abuse of children and our recognition of it than we came -- [tape cuts off] -- 4,000 years before it.
That's a fact and Andrew's a lot smarter than I and I believe he's right. Something similar can be said for these issues, victims -- general issues about victim of crime and their treatment.
Seymour: The future of this field, do you have any fears or concerns?
Howell: I don't really. There'll be growing pains. It's new. I have is that -- that's -- movement not move away from too far from it's real roots and its guts and its bone marrow and it's fabric.
And there's a lot of pain there. It's tough. Look at all -- it's tough to work in this. But you still need -- because I really think the system to a large extent is going to be populated in -- professionally by younger people.
The only down side to that is younger people don't see the full horizon of life, the pain, the difficulties, the challenges that are in that immunity cocoon kind of. But, we'll always deal with that.
But I feel pretty good that the legal structure, the amendments and the statutes that are on there, they're not going to evaporate. Nobody's going to take them off. That structure alone will save us. It may have been the smartest thing we ever did.
Seymour: Civil litigation -- you are considered one of the early pioneers and a lot of people who will be utilizing this Oral History Project may not understand what it's all about. If you could provide a summary of civil litigation and crime victims' needs and maybe a couple of concrete cases.
Howell: It has helped victims. I -- almost to a person I've done hundreds of cases, but I don't find in people who are motivated by money. Sometimes, we're able to ask for policy changes.
We feel certain that the apartment industry, the motel industry are materially safer because of civil claims they've had to their insurance carriers and made them become more conscious of this.
Then -- which our goal was always safety and health, but it has helped individual victims, because they've been able to take a horrible situation and maybe put education -- college education, retraining, some financial security -- a home is a -- very important to many people, particularly who have been victimized in an apartment or something.
So, it helped people through a lot of stuff and we hoped it moved public policy forward. And we ask for policy changes that -- and some of the victims have been really good about saying, look it's not about money. It's about you as a commercial institution in our town, knowing what's going on crime-wise around you.
And reaching out and finding information that you're really legally obligated to do.
So, every now and then those cases can be very significant in terms of rights -- we've filed privacy actions on. They're not always about money. Sometimes they're about privacy, children's privacy.
They're about the protection of kids. They're about getting policy changes in child serving agencies and making them do certain things.
Civil litigation has -- has a positive angle to it. I wish it was present more often, but it can be very helpful in a life that's been -- where control's been removed, because it does restore some control and some power and some ability to change your life for the positive.
And that's nice to see when you're working with somebody who you've only seen laugh once and that was very recently, after going through all of the experiences that they do and then finally something good happens and you see part of that personality restored.
The two strongest statements I have ever heard in the movement -- both were about sexual assault. One is by a medical doctor and -- [tape cuts off] -- I've not heard of her before or since. This was about ten years ago.
She describes a head on drunk driver crash, that injures her, the mother of three, 17 breaks in her limbs, nine months in the hospital. Cannot hold her children, horrible physical consequences, long term rehab.
She tells the story very poignantly and at the end of it she says, "All the pain that I endured as a result of that car crash does not compare to the pain I endured when my father would come into my room every night and fondle me."
The other statement I thought was -- a good friend in California -- you know her and her arms were cut off. And years after the incident -- she had that happen to her when she was 16.
Years after the incident, she said, "I have learned to live without my hands. I have not learned, yet, to live as a rape victim."
Now the -- you know the depths of that are of course what prompts everybody to step forward and get into a movement that -- those are the most articulate statements I've ever heard of what all this means.
Seymour: Anything else? Anything we didn't ask you that you want to add?
Howell: I think up until now, 2002, there has been a family fabric. We are family. And it has been good. We fight like family, but we've also been family. And I hope for those 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.
Seymour: You mentioned earlier you have a story about Bosco?
Howell: Not about Bosco, a story I was going to tell Bosco. Actually, the -- it was a story that can't be told publicly because some of the things that happened in the victim's movement are better left -- you know, go to our graves with us when we do and some of them are like that.
But the presence and the feeling here at a NOVA conference of family -- the problem is I see -- it does concern me -- fewer and fewer people from the old family coming back all the time. And that's troubling. I don't know about you, but that's troubling to me.
Because there -- when you fight on the barricades with somebody for a long period of time, it engenders a special bond. It is different when you fight on the barricades and you've been out there. Because the successes were never guaranteed in this.
This has been pretty tough hedge row fighting, hedge row by hedge row, just like Normandy was. And if we could hold everybody together, it would be nice, wouldn't it? (Break in Interview)
Howell: Well, we've not always been good on the all the things that we've done and there have been the normal human frailties follow us around, too. We're just people, you know. We're just people. And we -- we don't do everything that we're proud of.
But we hope that the fabric still stands and holds up, you know.
|This project was supported by Grant Number 2002-VF-GX-0009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.|