OFF TO WORK ... with Debbie Michelson, who tries to soothe crime victims' jangled nerves
by Bill Edwards
Star Staff Writer
May 02, 2011 | 2762 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In addition to carrying out a wide array of administrative functions from her office in the Calhoun County Courthouse, Debbie Michelson leads a homicide victims’ survivor support group which meets once a month. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
In addition to carrying out a wide array of administrative functions from her office in the Calhoun County Courthouse, Debbie Michelson leads a homicide victims’ survivor support group which meets once a month. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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In one respect, it’s just a standard gold-colored document envelope, filled with pamphlets and fliers bearing official government-sanctioned information.

But when Debbie Michelson hands it over to a person who has recently been the victim of serious crime, it might as well be the warmest Valentine, or cheeriest Christmas card.

That’s because when Michelson goes off to work as victim service officer for the Calhoun-Cleburne District Attorney’s office, she’s sometimes the only source of comfort a crime victim has.

The American prosecutorial system can be a cold wall for crime victims to lean against. That’s why Michelson has been at her job for the past eight years.

“For most people, it’s a very scary thing” when they enter the criminal justice system as a victim, she said. They don’t know what happens next, they don’t know police investigative procedure, they don’t know how courts work.

“I’ve done this long enough that I know what ‘now what?’ means,” Michelson said.

With previous work experience at United Way and the Anniston Police Department, she holds what seems like the only job in existence that combines skills and knowledge needed in those other two venues.

“There’s no getting bored, I can tell you that right now,” she said.

The raw data she needs each week come from the list of felony warrants issued by the D.A.’s office. Each warrant means someone is suspected of having done something against the law — and most of the time, against another person.

“If it’s anything other than a drug case, I will send you a packet of information,” Michelson said.

That packet includes a flow chart describing the general process of a felony criminal case; worksheet for estimating restitution you, the victim, deserve; a booklet on your rights and responsibilities as a victim; and a brochure on how victims of crime might receive restitution for losses.

That last one comes courtesy of the Alabama Crime Victims’ Compensation Commission, and brings up another point about Michelson’s job: She doesn’t dole out any money or cut any checks. She doesn’t even have to worry about preparing a budget.

Rather, she said, “I work very hard to make sure (victims) are aware” that the state crime victims’ fund, or restitution from the guilty party, can be used to restore financial equity to a situation of loss.

However, she added, “I never say what they will or won’t pay.”

Administrative functions from her office in the Calhoun County courthouse are only part of Michelson’s job, however. She estimates about half her time is spent “hand-holding,” either literally or figuratively, and informally talking things through with victims (formal, trained counseling is available through the Family Services Center of Calhoun County).

She also leads a homicide victims’ support group for families of murdered loved ones. It meets once a month and “really does work” for many families, she said.

She also answers lots and lots of questions posed by victims from a wide variety of cases.

“Mostly it’s trying to make things easier for prosecutors and police,” she said. “I do a lot of explaining as to what’s going to happen, what happens next.”

She also works with families involved as victims in capital cases — such as to ensure they have transportation to the execution site, if desired — or, less severely, letting those families know when a parole hearing is near.

Helping victims be calm and collected when they testify to a grand jury is part of Michelson’s job, too.

All told, she said, she’s happiest when she’s “working with somebody who’s just a totally innocent victim and I’m able to make them feel better — because they’re scared.”

If you know of anyone who’ll talk about what he or she does for a living, or you are such a person yourself, drop a line to bedwards@annistonstar.com for a possible write-up in “Off to Work.”
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