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McKenzie Robinson | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Sarah Donelan

Owner, Donelan Law LLC

Posted online

What led you in May to open the law practice?
I came from being an assistant prosecutor in Greene County. I want to be the attorney for some of those victims in the cases that I was prosecuting –  sexual assault, domestic violence cases. The criminal justice system can be pretty brutal on victims in those types of cases. Most of the time, the victims end up feeling like they’re the ones on trial. The defense is almost always going to be to blame the victim. Sometimes, that includes trying to get their protected medical records, trying to get the counseling records, trying to get access to their phone. While the prosecutor is obviously a very important role, they are not the attorney for the victim and, sometimes, victims need their own attorney to fight some of those battles. Rarely did they have an attorney. They’re still left with the physical damages, the emotional damages. One thing I’m trying to focus on is being creative and figuring out ways to help victims, and one of those is looking for ways to get victim compensation. For example, I’ve been looking at using the Tort Victims’ Compensation Fund. We also are looking at the criminal law, the nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual image, so the revenge porn law. That went into effect and has a civil cause of action in it where it provides for victims to get a minimum of $10,000 if they suffered that crime. Trying to use the existing laws to help victims so they can go on to heal and process things and live healthy lives despite what’s happened to them and empower them to feel like they got some sense of justice along the way.

What areas do you practice under a victims’ rights law firm?
Most recently, the biggest thing that I’ve seen is people calling with questions about their criminal case. Whether it’s at the very beginning of an investigation or sometimes even before they’ve even reported, they have concerns. If an abuser has told them that if you go to the police you’re going to be in trouble, that’s a common thing especially if the victim has an order of protection against. They’re scared because they think they’re the ones who have violated it. Abusers often use that as a tactic. The other big area I’m seeing is people wanting to initiate civil cases against their abusers or other entities who were responsible for abuse.

What are the challenges representing someone in a civil case for sexual assault or domestic abuse?
The wheels of justice are slow. The process of initiating the case to get any kind of relief often takes at least months, and sometimes years, before the end is done. Sometimes, that is something a survivor is willing to go forward with, and sometimes, it’s not. Even for an order of protection, oftentimes it takes months for a victim to get that full order in Greene County.

What percentage of victims report these types of crimes?
I don’t know about Greene County specifically, but I would imagine it’s reflective. The number of sexual assaults that are actually prosecuted is around 10% to 15%. It’s one of the more underreported crimes.

Has access to resources and services improved with the opening of Greene County Family Justice Center?
The Family Justice Center is a great resource for victims. As a prosecutor, I noticed victims who were connected with that resource tended to stay involved in their case longer. I think they are having a huge impact. Like all resources, they’re strained. We know detectives have huge caseloads, we know the shelter, Harmony House, has been full and turned victims away, and counseling resources, which is one of the highest priorities, they have waiting lists for those resources.

What criminal justice reform among these areas of practice are you eager to see passed?
This last session, there were some really great changes. Orders of protection are now available for lifetime for some petitioners. They also can include protection for pets. Another good issue that came up in the legislation was funding for telehealth to allow some rural communities to do sexual assault nurse exams remotely. That’s going to provide better aspects in some of those rural communities. But, of course, there are always ones that they don’t get to the next level. I think one of them that is important is access to firearms for people who’ve been convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault and for individuals who had orders of protection entered against them. That’s something I know that is brought up every year, and it’s not been successful yet.

Sarah Donelan can be reached at sarah@donelanlaw.com.

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