MORRISTOWN, NJ (Morris County) – On April 26, in recognition of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week 2023, members of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office joined leaders of the law enforcement and the victim advocate community for a conference to acknowledge crime victims.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is intended to raise awareness of victims’ rights and services, highlighting programs, celebrating progress achieved, and honoring victims, the professionals, and agencies who serve them.
Marking its 42nd anniversary this year, Congress annually declares one week in April as Crime Victims’ Rights Week. This year, National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is being observed from April 23-29, 2023. The theme this year is “Survivor Voices: Elevate. Engage. Effect Change.” The theme calls upon communities to amplify the voices of survivors and create environments where survivors have the confidence that they will be heard, believed, and supported.
Speakers for the conference included Rhett Hackett, survivor and President/Co-Founder of the Humanity Preservation Foundation and host of the HandsOFF Talk Show (a weekly television show on the RVNTV network); Chief Michael Koroski, Morris Plains Police Chief and Vice President of the Morris County Police Chiefs Association; Alexis Rachel, Coordinator for the Morris County Sexual Assault Response Team and the Forensic Nurse Examiner Program; Maria Vinci Savettiere, Esq., Executive Director of Deirdre’s House and Chairperson of the Morris County Multidisciplinary Team; Senator Anthony Bucco; and Commissioner Director John Krickus.
A survivor of child sexual abuse and advocate, Hackett has appeared and went public with his story on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and has been on radio, television, newspapers and a presenter on the topic of inter-personal violence. Focusing on domestic violence, child abuse and bullying, his team at Humanity Preservation Foundation has provided prevention education programs, hosted numerous events including outreach aimed at the connection of childhood trauma and addiction, and launched a recovery platform (Recovery Your Way) as an extension of their services.
“In seeing a need, I launched a nonprofit organization called the Humanity Preservation Foundation, and I determined I wanted to do things my way. I wanted to create the things that weren’t there when I was a kid, and as an adult trying to navigate through this,” Hackett said. “In this country, we have a problem with asking for help – we don’t do it. I tell my team all the time, I tell fraternity brothers and schools, you are not the law and you are not the therapist. There are people out here who are professionals able to help you, and let’s direct them to them because they are going to help in the best way possible so they don’t revictimize themselves.”
Sexual violence is one of the most interpersonal forms of crime, as it is both physical and psychological in nature, and is the most underreported, said Rachel. She explained when her team encounters survivors, they are considered patients, and are empowered by letting them know they are safe and have control over how things progress. Survivors are also provided with resources and future services information for when they are ready.
Rachel recognized the level of coordination in Morris County on behalf of survivors among law enforcement, child welfare agencies and organizations investigating crimes against children and adults and providing services, especially during Covid-19. She commended the JBWS (Jersey Battered Women’s Service) Crisis Response Team for ensuring survivor safety and access to shelter, the Victim/Witness Unit for striving to keep up a continuity of care and services, and Deirdre’s House for taking child victims under their wing and connecting them with highly-trained child specialists. Her team also collaborates with law enforcement who assist survivors who want to report their assault but may be fearful due to their own criminal history or immigration status.
“When we utilize this multi-disciplinary team approach, we are able to work through many challenges and language barriers,” said Rachel. “When we utilize the survivor-centered approach, it means we really have to think outside of the box, and Covid put that to the test. We found ourselves navigating the frightening unknown as medical professionals while working with survivors facing the same fears, coupled with the trauma of having undergone a sexual assault.”
The Forensic Nurse Response Team will be expanded with the implementation of a Non-Fatal Strangulation Response Team later this year for greater survivor outcomes, Rachel said.
“It is our goal to continue to engage with survivors, ensuring that their voices are heard and that their needs are met. They are the reason why we are in this line of work, they are who we fight for. They did not choose to cross our path, so it is up to us to elevate them to continue to effect change,” Rachel said.
Executive Director Savettiere, Esq. recognized the advocacy of the O’Brien family and New Jersey lawmakers who drafted the Victims Bill of Rights. Deirdre’s House is a nationally accredited child advocacy center and is the only site in Morris County where child victims of abuse and/or neglect can be forensically interviewed and prepared for trial by law enforcement, medically examined and treated by a pediatric abuse specialist, and clinically counseled-in English or Spanish—all under one roof, all free of charge. Since 1996, Deirdre’s House has provided services in over 43,000 child visits.
“What it really comes down to is we want to provide to the child victim is hope, healing, and justice,” Savettiere said“We really have to listen very carefully to victims’ voices, as they can be very quiet and very reluctant. Because when a victim needs to come forward, they are in a very vulnerable state. They don’t necessarily want to tell their story, but are compelled to for various reasons, it’s part of their own healing process and need to seek justice.”
Commissioner Director Krickus presented the Proclamation recognizing National Crime Victims’ Rights Week approved by the Board of Commissioners, which would be approved by the board later that evening at their meeting.
“As chiefs our primary focus will always be prevention and deterrence of crime, and we hope that we can stop just one more heartless act of violence that shatters our communities,” said Chief Koroski. “We must work on not only prevention, but pre plan to build our community’s resilience, and it is the partnerships with those gathered here today that are the foundation of that resiliency.”
Chief Koroski added it is the Morris County Police Chiefs Association’s mission to care for its officers in the form of resiliency training and wellness programs, as they experience trauma similar to that of survivors.
“All too often, the rights of victims are lost in the noise that bombards us every day. This week it is our privilege to again call attention to those who have suffered and again to confirm our commitment to their protection and enforcement of their rights as well. I would like to commend Morris County law enforcement officers and victim/witness service providers who work collaboratively and comprehensively among our agencies, and continue to bring a high level of sensitive services to our victims and survivors. I would especially commend Sheriff James Gannon and his team who provide vital support services to law enforcement, victims and survivors in our ongoing efforts to reduce crime and it’s impact on our communities. It takes a multi-dimensional team to make these victims programs work,” Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll said.
Last year, the MCPO dedicated a stepping stone near the victims’ tree outside of the Administration Building as a symbol for victims taking the first step to healing. The victims’ tree is lit annually during the week to serve as a beacon of hope. In addition, a wreath adorned with a “2023 in Recognition and Remembrance” ribbon has been placed next to the tree.