An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive
Betty Jane Spencer
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Lord: This is Janice Harris Lord and I am interviewing Betty Jane Spencer. In terms of other reference materials, a book called "What Murder Leaves Behind" is...includes Betty Jane's story and at the moment, we can't think of the author, but I will get it to you when you're ready to do this. There's also a video called "Shattered Dreams" that I have several copies of and that I will be happy to donate one to this project. But I think it mightbe useful, Betty Jane, in spite of the resources that are out there,for you to share with us a bit about the facts of what happened to you,just so people down through the years don't get it mixed up.
Spencer: In 1977 on Valentine's Day, four young men entered my rural home in Indiana carrying shotguns. They had my son and three stepsons and I lie on the floor and after taking a few things from our house, they shot us all with the shotguns. I survived the boys all were...all died immediately.It's been a rather hard time, but I really wanted to...to do something that would make their lives....their deaths not in vain. So I tried to...to do things to help others. And that's basically where my victim services came in.
Lord: Betty Jane, tell us what the field of crime victim rights and services was like back in 1977.
Spencer: In 1977, there actually were very few victim advocates. I didn'tknow of any. I had a detective that helped me; actually did the job of a victim advocate, although we didn't know what to call him. But the field was very small and at that time, it was mostly...it was mostly about domestic abuse and things of that sort, not the whole gamut of victims advocates today. And most victim advocates were working as volunteers, using their own homes and their own money. And I think the first NOVA conference Iwent to, there was 150 people there. That's a very small amount compared to what goes today.
Lord: I know that you were real involved with NOVA from the beginning and am I remembering right that NOVA was started in 1978? Do you remember?
Spencer: No, it was '76.
Lord: '76, so it had just really been pulled together when you...Can you tell us a little bit about those early days of NOVA and your involvement with them?
Spencer: We spent a lot of sleepless nights training each other. They trained me and I talked about how victims feel. And I would always stay with John and Marlene...John Stein and Marlene Young. And we would just sit and talk and they...I got a lot of training from them. I was invited to speak at NOVA conferences, which then...invited to stay at the conference and I lacked the finances, which made it really nice because I got lots of training I would not have been able to afford. I really got to know people and we would sit around the coffee shop and share stories and teach each other. We really didn't have the people to train us at that time. 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.
Lord: This is a two-part question and it has to do with the challenges that you faced. And I'm saying that I think it's two-part because I think it would be of interest personally, after such a devastating crime, for people to hear - what do you think were your greatest personal challenges to work towards getting through? And then the second part is, I'd like you to talk a little bit about when you started Protect the Innocent. And what some of the challenges were in starting a little grassroots movement here in Indiana, totally from the ground up. And those...those are separate, I think, but maybe they're the same.
Spencer: I've already forgotten the first question. (Laughs)
Lord: Okay, the first question was: personally, looking back on it, what do you think were the greatest challenges you had to overcome in getting to this place where you wanted to make something good out of it...you wanted to make the rest of your life as other-centered as possible. What did you have to get through to get to that place?
Spencer: The main thing I had to get through was my anger. I was extremely angry. I was angry with everybody. I was very angry at God because I had been taught that if you lived a good life, you, God took care of you and protected you and answered your prayers. Well, he answered my prayers, but not the way I wanted them answered. And so I had to get past that anger, which took a long time and lots of counseling. And then I...I decided that I could do something. I wasn't sure what. Maybe...change the laws in Indiana and help victims. And I was told by our legislator, a senator, that I should lobby for different laws. I didn't even have any idea what you did when you lobbied. I...I just said a lot of prayers after I got over being mad with God and I said, "If you open the doors, I'll walk through." And I didn't know he was going to open so many doors, but I went through a lot of them. But we...we formed a group called Protect the Innocent and we lobbied for stronger victims' laws and stronger criminal laws. And we were very successful, unbelievably successful. We...we knew nothing about lobbying, but we had someone who did that helped us.
Lord: Who was that?
Spencer: That was Ross Stovall. He was an attorney that had lobbied in Washington, D.C. that came back to Mooresville, Indiana. And he worked with us and trained us and we...we even thought about...we traded out his services. He was just opening his law office. So, he took time off from his law office to help us with legislators and we took time off and worked as his secretaries. (Laughs) Two of us girls worked in his office on Thursdays and then I still had a business to run. But it all worked out. But we were very successful. We didn't know how successful we were, at first. We...the first year we lobbied for four bills and we got four bills passed. And so I thought this was an easy thing and I discovered that sometimes it takes years to get this one simple bill through. But all in all, a group of us - not just Protect the Innocent, but working with other groups - we got 56 laws changed in Indiana in six years, and really didn't realize what an accomplishment that was until later.
And then we formed Protect the Innocent Victims Foundation, which aids victims and it is still in existence and it is on the VOCA plan...has VOCA grants. And people actually get paid and we have offices now and in Indiana you're required to have a victim assistant in every county. Some of them don't do a whole lot because they just don't understand what they can do and what they should be doing. But for the most part, it's a big step forward. You don't.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. And it was a very uncomfortable thing that I had to walk past her.
Lord: Can you think of any kind of unique or unusual or creative stories about either when you were lobbying to get your bills passed or once you started providing victims services? Any...any stories about something kind of out of the box that you were able to do to help a victim?
Spencer: Well, some facts about lobbying. I had no idea how to lobby. The only thing was...people in the legislature - both the Senate and the House - knew my story, knew who I was. That was helpful because they were respectful and they did listen to what I had to say. We had a...a...a pin that we wore. It was the scales of justice balanced and they were...the scales were made in "PTI" - Protect the Innocent. And it was rather unique and didn't...at that time, I was rather shy and I didn't know how to approach these legislators, so I started riding the elevator. And the House offices were in a place that was hard to find and I really had to keep on top of who I had talked to - that was my biggest challenge - and every day they'd say, "Well, what does that pin stand for?" And I would tell them about it. I used to say, "Do you know where room, I think it was 238, is?" And they'd say, "Oh, yes, I'm going there." And of course I had that in mind that they were probably going there and "I'll show you." Well of course it was kind of out of the way. And so along the way, I would lobby him all the time. (Laughs)
I had a lot of unique experiences with working with victims. With a small community, you know a lot of them and it, of course, it's best if you don't get too involved in their lives, but it's very difficult not to. And I still have relationships with some of the victims I worked with and now they're helping me, now that I'm sick. But one of the most heartbreaking situations was a little boy that was molested by a stranger in his little town and he just...he didn't fit with all these little girls that been molested and he really had a hard time adjusting to the fact that he was the only boy in the support groups of children. And learning, as a people in his little town, just blamed him rather than the 20 year-old that molested him. And the 20 year-old pushed him to have oral sex, so even his own brothers and sisters wouldn't kiss him. And he really had quite a time. And his parents were...well, they...I kept saying, "We've got to get professional counseling for this child." And they kept telling me he wasn't crazy and I kept telling them, "No he's not crazy, he needs professional counseling because he's becoming extremely angry and destructive." He broke the car window...windshield out and things of that sort. And finally I talked to his father and convinced him to get professional counseling. And I just asked the nurse here the other day if she knew this little boy and she said yes and he's doing fine and I felt so good about it. But I worked with a lot of molested children.
At that time, when I was working with victims, there wasn't a number of domestic violence that was showing up; now there are. But at that time, they...they weren't. They were keeping it to themselves. Now we, in Park County, we have a lot of domestic violence and they're doing something about it. Before, they just...they just weren't coming out. But their children...it seems as though when the children got to a certain age, then they told. They got brave enough to tell. And we had good people to work with - sheriff's department was good to work with at that time...it was welfare department, they worked with me and I really had...it all worked together quite nicely. And I'm just proud that it's still going on. It's still...still working.
Lord: Can you tell us about any failures that you think you experienced along the way that might be useful to new people in the field?
Spencer: Well, there's always failures. But one of the things is...that I had to learn was just because you're lobbying a bill and it doesn't go through this year, that doesn't mean if you bring it back next year, and the next, and sometimes the next, it won't go through. An example of that was when I wanted to have open court where people would be able to come to...if...not to...parole hearings...clemency hearings. I wanted people notified that these things were coming up. And this...one of my funny jokes that goes along with it. 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."
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. We wanted clemency hearings to only be available to people with multiple convictions every five years. What we would have settled for was three. And we were...we got nowhere. And I got a letter about three years ago that clemency boards for multiple convictions are every five years now. Finally got it through. And it was what we wanted and then actually were asking for five, but hoped we'd get three. Sometimes you have to put it up a little bit so that you can compromise.
Lord: Let's take a little personal side trip here because I know planning to speak at those clemency hearings every time you've had to over the last decade has been very stressful. I wonder if you could talk about that just a little bit and how you anticipate that that's going to happen after you're gone.
Spencer: Well, I know it's going to happen after I'm gone because a new group of people are asking to be notified now. We only asked that the next of kin be notified and it grew to the point that anyone who wants to be notified just lets the victim advocate in corrections know and they will be notified by registered voter. And people are coming to me now and asking me, "Okay, how can I help?" Preparing for the first year was terrible. I didn't know what to expect and it was ten years after the death of the boys. Of course, they don't appear at the hearing, but their families did and they would talk about what nice people they were and I got up and left because that was not...I was having a hard time with that. So a man came out and told me how wrong I was to feel the way I felt. And it was just a hard time all around. But I was always treated so nicely by the Parole Board. And no favors, they just listened and they cared, as I'm sure they did with every victim that came before them.
And...it...the last time that we came up before the Board was almost ten years ago. We had so much media there, I think they gave up. I think they're just waiting for me to die, is all. I've got to work hard to stay alive, but...because I'm sure they will really come out of the woodwork when I die, but they're going to be surprised by the number of people who are going to be there. But the last hearing, there was three of the four investigators on the case that came to testify. I've never heard of that one before. And there was a man sitting beside me that was there to testify, sitting on the front row and he was sitting beside me and he had a whole stack of papers and...briefs and things...and I thought, well is he a minister that's going to again tell us how bad we are for wanting...not wanting to let them out? This was the man that wrote briefs against David Smith's hearing and this is the man that wrote the briefs for the appeals court against David Smith. Now, that I've never heard of either...that someone like that come and testify and I...they'll never know how much I appreciate that because, I mean, that's heavy stuff...that's that just not an emotional mother, that's people that know what happened and care about what happens to people. Someone said we had everybody there that day but the Goodyear blimp. (Laughs)
Lord: You have had many, many, many accomplishments over the years. Can you identify what you think may be your greatest accomplishment or maybe your top two? That could be anything from work with a particular victim all the way to a particular bill that got passed.
Spencer: Well, people who work with victims try not to get too involved in their lives, but sometimes it's just not possible. And the first juvenile victim I had was a 14 year-old girl that was an attempted rape victim. And it was not just somebody grabbed her and she got away, it was a very brutal attempted rape. And she really had such a hard time. And he threatened her that if she told anybody, she would...he would hurt her family. And of course these victims believe this. These youngsters are terribly frightened of what these people...if he did this to me, what will he do to my mother, you know. She became, actually, too dependent on me and I...I had to straighten that out because I knew that that was not good for her. So, one night when she was upset, I said, "Well, I guess I'm going to have to get someone else to work with you." And she said, "Why?" And I said, "Because I haven't done my job." And her question again was, "Why?" And I said, "It's my job to teach you how to take care of yourself and how to survive through this and I haven't done that. I've taught you to depend on me, so it's not working." "Oh, oh, I'll...I'll be good," she says. (Laughs) And then we began to work together better because she was less dependent on me. But that was in 1983 or '84 and she's still my gal, as far as I'm concerned. We're very close. She's married and has four children and she comes to see me often. It's a relationship that's grown and I think we've both become better people because of each other. She's...she calls me her second mom and I think of her as my kid. She's very special to me.
As far as legislation, one of the greatest things that I had the opportunity to work on was the VOCA Fund. It was 1984 Victim of Crime Act. (Off microphone discussion) Yes, that was the first one, but what it did...what the VOCA Funds were funds that were derived from a percentage of federal fines and then used for victim services. So, it was not taxpayers' money. And you were able to get these funds through grants; you had toperform certain things. And I was fortunate enough to be on the committees that made the rules. I...there have been times that I had my VOCA grant and I'd say, "Ooh, I...I hate to do all these things," but I had to do them and I couldn't even gripe because I'd been part of making all of the rules. But 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 was fortunate enough to have a husband that thought this was important, too. Therefore, he didn't complain when I used money that...for these that I didn't use for something else...for victim services.
But it...through all of this, I had the opportunity to speak before the President Victims of Crime Committee...(off microphone discussion)...Victims Task Force. Anyway, through that, I met several people that...we were active in the victims' movement on the federal level and I was able to work with them. 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." Well, I was fortunate. I found I didn't have it as badly as most crime victims have. But it still...you become a piece of evidence very quickly more than a crime victim. And it just, it's a tough thing. And like I said, I was probably treated better than...than a lot of them.
But I'm very proud when we still have our Protect the Innocent Foundation and...active here in Park County. And I...I'm very proud of it. After all these years it's still going, still helping victims. And not only does it help victims, but it helps get convictions. Because when you...your victim is helped, then they're much more willing to testify and do the things that they really need to do. And when there's somebody standing beside them, it's so much better.
Lord: Not only have you worked with Protect the Innocent with all kinds of victims here in Indiana, but you spent some years working for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, as well. Can you talk about name recognition and how the names of groups, once they are respected either at the state level or the national level, helps in terms of lobbying?
Spencer: It does help to have name recognition. Of course, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was an organization that got a lot of attention right away. It was...Candy Lightner knew how to wok to get the attention that Mothers Against Drunk Driving needed. Before that time, there was so little attention to these people killed by drunk drivers and injured by drunk drivers. And although a person doesn't get in a car with intention of going out and killing somebody, it still is such an avoidable crime.
And Protect the Innocent became known mainly because the ACLU didn't like us very well. (Laughs) So, they helped us to come on by always fighting us. And that was alright 'cause sometimes you...your enemies can help you more than your friends. But they, of course, opposed us. Different laws, for instance, innocent...guilty...what was that law, that big law we got through the first year? Guilty, but mentally ill. And that was a very big law. What it did, it provided that people could be found guilty and serve a sentence in a mental institution. But then, when they were pronounced cured, finish their sentence in prison. So, it wasn't as advantageous to plead guilty because of insanity because it just didn't work as good. And that was particularly up around Chicago and the northern part of Indiana. And it's been used and used and used and people were getting off free because they were insane and they were miraculously cured within three months. Well, this put a stop to a lot of it. And we were, I think, the third or fourth state that had this particular law. And the ACLU really fought it. And I had run in to some of them and said, "Well, I just don't agree with you," and I said, "Well, I'd be scared if you did." (Laughs)
Lord: As you have watched and continued your involvement with the crime victims' movement or the field of crime victim services, maybe more often called now...through the years and with the perspective that you now have, of about 30 years of work with it, where do you think we're going wrong now or what are we not doing as right as we did back in the beginning? Or how could we do things better right now?
Spencer: One of the things that we did better was when we were all volunteers because no one was doing it as a job. When the funds came available, there were certain people who were not trained, but because of the victim service people, thinking they had all the answers when they really didn't have the training. And they were more or less people that worked in prosecutors' offices and notified people their court hearing was coming up without actually helping the victim. They didn't do much of it. And now I think that's settled down. Although there's still, I think, a great need for training. And with certification coming up, I think it's wonderful because that's going to eliminate some of those people that are not qualified. But, yet, it's not going to eliminate those that have beenin the field for a long time. Because if you care about and you learn.there was a wonderful victim advocate in Indianapolis, Ruthann Popcheff. And she always said, "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." And she had it right. People have to care or they can't do it...can't do a proper job.
Lord: If you were giving advice today to a brand-new advocate in the field, I know from what you said already, you would tell him or her to get as much training as they possibly could. But what other practical things might they do to become this advocate who is both well-educated and has developed a real capacity to care?
Spencer: Be very patient with the law enforcement and with your victim that you're working with. Because the victim that you're working with wants things to happen overnight and then the law field, it just doesn't happen overnight. Learn to.all you can about the case. And go ask the questions. You don't have all the answers. Possibly the prosecutor or someone else does. Find out the answers to the victim's questions; they'll be more comfortable with the case. I know the first shock that I had was two of them confessed and then turned right around and pleaded not guilty and I had no experience with the system. I couldn't understand that at all. And I was really angry and upset with it. Well, there's many things like that that come up and a victim advocate needs to be knowledgeable on those things. And if you don't have the answer, don't play it by ear. Go find the answer. Because that person will trust you as long as you don't try to play big shot. And I found there are some that try to pretend that they know everything and it doesn't work that way. We all have questions. All the years that I worked with victims, there was always some.something new come up.
And get the training that you need. Go to every conference that you can possibly afford. And have a good relationship with other victim advocates. I've learned a lot over a cup of coffee at conferences. That we were all learning together and we're still learning. And I'm sure that 20 years from now, we'll still be learning.
Lord: That actually is a great segue to the very next question because you've been in this field now for almost 30 years. As you think ahead 30 years from now, about 2035 - and I know you're just making this up - but if the field were then what you really wanted it to be, what would it look like?
Spencer: Number one: police officers would be well-trained how to interview a victim immediately, because not everywhere are the victim advocates called out right away. Some places they are, some they're not. But the first thing anybody can say that will help a victim is, "I'm sorry." That's the nicest sound that somebody cares. And they are learning these things. Police officers are being trained now to know how to handle a victim because when they're traumatized, they're not going to be good witnesses and they're going to have a hard time getting through this. Society owes them just as much as they owe the person who committed the crime. And a lot of people don't quite understand that. But it's very important that the victim not be traumatized any more than necessary.
I was fortunate. Being in a small community, I have a...an investigator that, we knew nothing about victim advocates at that time, but he and I got along real well from the start. And they had never handled a case like ours and certainly not one with a survivor, so it was determined that any questions that I had or anything that I brought up with the other officers would be turned over to Barney and he would be the one that would talk to me about them. And it worked quite well. And years later - he died not too many years ago - years later, he said, "What exactly is a victim advocate?" And I said, "It's what you were when we didn't know what to call you." (Laughs) But he was...he had that sixth sense of how to get me to help him, but then to help me. And he knew when to be a little firm without being too firm, and when to be sympathetic. He just had that.
And you have to sense what the needs are. The most important question that a victim advocate can ask a victim, in my words...in my thoughts...is, "What can I do for you?" Because sometimes we think they need something and they need something entirely different and isn't what they want from me at all. So, I found that that was a very important question.
Lord: Do you have any fears about the movement and the way it's going now?
Spencer: Not necessarily. Of course, I've been...I haven't had...I've had bad health for quite a while, so I haven't been able to be with the group like I used to be. But I still see it going. I still see people caring. And I still see some very poor victim advocates. But I think with certification, that they will rid out those ones that are just not capable, who are doing it only for a salary. And this is a job that you just can't do just for a salary. You certainly deserve a salary, but there has to be more to it than that. Believe me, when there were funds available, they came out of the woodwork. (Laughs)
Lord: Betty Jane, I know that at the time your boys were murdered, your faith was very important to you. And I know that your faith is very important to you now, and it has been along your journey towards recovery, even though recovery from something like this is never complete. I wonder if you could talk about your faith journey a little bit, and various peaks and valleys of that over the years.
Spencer: Well, at first, I was depending on God so much and then all of sudden, I became very angry with him. And I was angry with him for almost four years. I was angry with everybody and everything. It just...I'd get up feeling angry and I'd go to bed feeling angry. And it seemed like something I couldn't control. And I had lots of counseling and that helped. And a counselor asked me, "Who was I so angry with?" And I said, "I hate God." And it shocked me that I even said such a thing. And he said, "Well, don't you think he understands, that he loves you anyway?" And I'd like to say that that day everything straightened out, but that was a start of getting rid of my anger.
And so, more and more, I began to depend on him and he's done nothing but taken care of me. With my health problems, everybody thinks this is going to be the end. And I'm still here. It's just he's...he's not ready for me to die, I guess. But he has helped me through a lot of things. And when I really stop and think about my life, I've had the worst that I can think of and I've had the best. I've had a lot of wonderful opportunities to do things for people. And I feel that God's there and he's...he's still letting me help people. And that helps me. And he's going to be with me until it's time for me to go greet the boys. Of course, I have this wonderful imagination - that they're going to be standing at the gate with their hands in their pockets, of course. (Laughs) I don't believe I ever saw that in the Bible, but...(laughs)...it seems like that would be a good place for them.
There's a passage in the Bible that helps me a lot. I'm going to get it. This is JB Phillip's version of the New Testament of the...in the modern English. This was Greg's New Testament and when I picked it up several...a long time after he had died, I found he had many passages marked. And the thing that helped me the most was in Thessalonians. And it says, "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." On the other side, it says, "Thank you, God." But there are places here he'd mark and say, "Wow" or...you know...it's...it's been very special.
Lord: Several years ago now, Betty Jane, you were in our home struggling with the issue of forgiveness when one of the offenders had approached you about that. And you were trying your best to deal with that with honesty and integrity. Can you talk to us a little bit about that struggle back during that time and what you came up with?
Spencer: I would just like to close.
Lord: Okay, that's fine.
|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.|