by TRACY ZOLLINGER TURNER
When Erika Oliphant stepped into her new role as Monroe County prosecutor in 2019, she wanted to improve the experience of sex crime and domestic abuse victims within the criminal justice system, as well as the experience of those who work to prosecute their offenders. “These are difficult caseloads,” Oliphant says. “They’re very emotionally draining. I thought it might be better to try more of a team approach.”
Former Prosecutor Chris Gaal had created positions for a dedicated sex crimes prosecutor, as well as designated victim assistant positions for both sex and domestic violence crimes. Oliphant built on that structure, creating an interconnected Special Victims Unit (SVU), funded by a federal grant that puts the sex crimes and domestic violence prosecution positions on the same salary scale and adds a part-time assistant.
Oliphant formed the SVU in July, hiring Sex Crimes Deputy Prosecutor Hannah Jones, who worked at an SVU in Marion County, and Domestic Violence Deputy Prosecutor Rebecca Sharon, who worked in Lawrence County with the state’s only domestic violence problem-solving court. When Sharon recently moved to be closer to family, her position was taken over by Lynn Keller, who Oliphant says has experience working with national domestic violence experts using a family justice center–approach to intimate partner violence. Keller most recently worked in the Child Support Division.
The new structure allows the SVU to have more contact with victims. The prosecutors have also been through specialized training to help them understand the neurobiology of trauma and trauma-informed interviewing, Oliphant says. “That helps them know how to interact with victims,” she says. “And how to get what they need for their cases without adding additional trauma or retraumatizing the victim.”
Jones says introducing victim advocacy earlier in the process is a huge benefit to survivors, and having more than one person in the office with this training reduces the stress on individual prosecutors.
The formation of the SVU has also improved communication with detectives, Oliphant says, and has led to closer relationships with social service agencies that provide direct assistance to victims. “That really has a lot to do with the women I have in these positions just being very proactive and creative and connected,” she says.