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PA and Berks authorities ready to help victims of crime

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In September 2013, Luis Serrano was forced to once again confront one of the darkest chapters of his life.

He was called as a witness in the trial of his mother's murderer.

In 2009, Serrano's mother, Maria Serrano, was hospitalized after being set on fire by her ex-boyfriend.

She suffered burns to over 60% of her body and died 45 days later.

“The trial lasted a total of nine days,” Serrano said. “During that time, I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know these wonderful people here in Berks County in the Victim/Witness Division.”

An emotional Serrano said Berks Victim/Witness Coordinator Ruthielynn Scott did everything humanly possible to make sure he and his family were well taken care of.

Luis Serrano at a press conference for Crime Victims' Rights Week in Reading. (Courtesy of PAcast)
Luis Serrano said the Berks County Victim/Witness Unit supported him and his family during the trial for the 2009 murder of his mother. (Courtesy of PAcast)

“She (Scott) was the real MVP. During those nine days, she greeted us every morning and afternoon,” said Serrano, pausing to collect himself. “Too often, we underestimate the power of a hug, a smile, kind words and a listening ear.”

Maria Serrano's killer, Donald Williams, was later found guilty of first-degree murder and related charges and sentenced to life in prison.

Express

For the Serrano family and others suffering from the aftermath of a crime, the prospect of talking about it is often daunting, even when the outcome is justice.

The goal of a recent conference held at the Berks County Services Center was to highlight the variety of support services available to crime victims.

The conference, which was held in conjunction with National Victims' Rights Week, was attended by representatives of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency as well as leaders from the county's law enforcement and victim services agencies.

Berks County District Attorney John Adams speaks at a press conference for Crime Victims' Rights Week in Reading. (Courtesy of PAcast)
Berks County District Attorney John Adams urges community members to become familiar with the services available to help crime victims. (Courtesy of PAcast)

“Are you prepared when someone tells you about a victim? Do you know the services in your community?” asked District Attorney John T. Adams. “By learning more, we can support options for life-saving services and, most importantly, provide hope.”

Adams noted that crime can touch anyone’s life.

“In 2022 alone, there were 6.6 million violent crimes against people over the age of 12 and 13.4 million property crimes (nationwide),” Adams said.

Speakers represented several organizations that provide services to victims in the county, including the Children's Alliance Center of Berks County, the Berks Victim/Witness Assistance Unit, Safe Berks and the Reading Police Department.

Adams noted that many organizations have recently worked together to help victims of human trafficking.

“Cooperation is an essential component of victims' rights and services,” Adams said. “If a victim does not feel respected, believed or supported, they are less likely to cooperate in the criminal justice system.”

State support

Kathy Buckley, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Victim's Services, said her office supports victims by providing funding for services in Berks and across the state.

Kathy Buckley, director of PCCD's Victim Support Office, at a Victims' Rights Week press conference in Reading. (Courtesy of PAcast)
Kathy Buckley, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Victim's Services, said her office supports crime victims by providing funding to state services. (Courtesy of PAcast)

Buckley noted that Governor Josh Shapiro has proposed investing $5 million in the state's Victims Compensation Assistance Program.

“VCAP is a financial lifeline for victims of violence and crime,” Buckley said. “This program provides financial assistance for … medical bills, counseling, funeral expenses and a variety of other things.”

Over the past five years, PCCD has paid out more than 76,000 VCAP claims totaling $65 million, Buckley said.

Buckley thanked Reading Police for submitting timely reports to the VCAP program, ensuring victims quickly received the financial support they needed.

According to Reading Police Chief Eli Vasquez, Reading Police assisted with 53 VCAP cases in 2023.

District authorities

Another important service is Safe Berks, which provides 24/7 crisis support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

These services include a 24/7 hotline and text message, safety planning, crisis and other counseling, emergency shelter, medical and legal support, assistance with filing protective orders, legal representation in final protective orders, and advocacy and support groups, according to Beth Garrigan, CEO of Safe Berks.

Garrigan said one of her agency's goals is to minimize re-traumatization during investigations and prosecutions – an effort supported by PCCD funding and partnerships with other county agencies.

“At Safe Berks, we are proud to work with these partners to support our community’s victims and survivors during and after a time when they are most vulnerable and frightened,” Garrigan said.

Amy Sundstrom, director of the Children's Alliance Center and head of the Victim/Witness Unit at the District Attorney's Office, also gave a speech.

She said the unit was set up to support victims, witnesses and their families throughout the criminal proceedings.

“For many people, this is the first time they have been a victim… their world has been turned upside down, they are thrown into a system that is often difficult to navigate, and they experience a range of emotions,” Sundstrom said. “Our mission is… to ensure that their basic rights as victims of crime are upheld and that they are treated with dignity and respect throughout the process.”

Amy Sundstrom, director of the Children's Alliance Center and chief of the Victim/Witness Unit for the Berks County District Attorney's Office, at a Crime Victims' Rights Week press conference in Reading. (Courtesy of PAcast)
Amy Sundstrom, director of the Children's Alliance Center and head of the Victim/Witness Unit, said the unit helps about 6,000 people each year. (Courtesy of PAcast)

The Victim/Witness Assistance Unit helps about 6,000 people each year, according to Sundstrom, and offers a range of free services, including court accompaniment and orientation, case information and notification, assistance with completing victim compensation forms, financial assistance, assistance with victim statements, safety planning and offender release notification, and referrals to community agencies.

Representing the Children's Alliance Center, a special guest was Kammy, a yellow Labrador who provides assistance in forensic interrogations.

“She puts a smile on the faces of the children we see,” Sundstrom said.

Kammy, a yellow Labrador and foster dog of the Children's Alliance Center of Berks County, at a press conference for Crime Victims' Rights Week in Reading. (Courtesy of PAcast)
Kammy, a foster dog at the Children's Alliance Center of Berks County, provides assistance with forensic interviews. (Courtesy of PAcast)

The Children's Alliance Center serves about 350 children annually, according to Sundstrom, and brings together law enforcement, prosecutors, child protective services, victim advocates and medical professionals under one roof.

“This allows us to conduct a forensic interview, we can determine the most appropriate evidence-based intervention, we can assess the cases for prosecution and we can issue referrals,” Sundstrom said.

She said the agency is staffed with trained interviewers who know how to ask children questions without re-traumatizing them.

“Our goal is to reduce trauma and ensure that children are not further harmed by the systems designed to support them,” Sundstrom said.

Sundstrom noted that victimization is a taboo subject.

She encouraged the community to speak up on this issue and learn more about the resources available.

“I urge anyone who feels uncomfortable to allow themselves to do this,” Sundstrom said. “Don't let these victims suffer in silence. Just imagine how much more comforting it would be for a victim if they knew immediately who to turn to for help.”

For help

Safe Berks provides free and confidential services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Services are available in English and Spanish and can be translated into other languages ​​if needed.

For assistance, call Safe Berks' 24-hour hotline at 844-789-SAFE (7233) or text SAFE BERKS to 20121.