By Caitlin VanOverberghe, Greenfield Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD — The fates of the defendants in criminal cases filed by the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office are easy to map out.
There are meetings with law enforcement and lawyers; appearances in court; sometimes hearings, sometimes settlement conferences or pleas. Eventually, if they are found guilty, they receive a sentence with the appropriate penalty.
It’s a much different story for the victims of these crimes. They, too, have piles of paperwork and meetings with police and prosecutors. They’ve been hurt, physically, emotionally or financially, but rarely are they assigned free assistance.
If left to figure it out alone, it can surely feel like drowning or being lost in deep darkness.
For victims in Hancock County, Katie Molinder isn’t necessarily the light at the end of the tunnel, but she is a person meeting up with them halfway with a flashlight.
Molinder recently was hired to serve as the victim’s assistant in the prosecutor’s office. Her job is to help victims navigate the legal system and connect them with any nonprofit agencies they may need.
Whether it’s an email to remind them of a court date, a phone call to explain their legal rights or a letter with information about anything from tips about preventing identity theft to instructions on how to file a personal protection order, Molinder serves as a link between the court system and nonprofits or government agencies in the area.
“While I’m not providing direct services, I’m connecting people with things in the community that so much of the time they don’t know about,” Molinder said. “Instantly they are feeling empowered, they are getting the services that they need and they are (shaking off) the anxiety they have because they don’t know where to turn. I’m that first line of defense for them.”
Previously, the task of contacting victims and keeping them informed about the cases with which they are involved fell to the attorneys, prosecutor Brent Eaton said. But a high number of cases coupled with unpredictable hours in the courtroom made the responsibility a challenge.
Having had experiences working in the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office in the past and in prosecutors’ offices across central Indiana, Eaton said he quickly learned the value of having a victim’s assistant with direct access to case files, someone who can serve as a point person for all agencies and victims alike.
The proposal for the new position became a focal point of Eaton’s campaign last year, and when he finally took office, keeping that promise was a priority.
“I was convinced that this was a position that we needed,” Eaton said.
Enter Molinder, a Hancock County native. She received her bachelor’s degree in youth, adult and family services from Purdue University in 2007. She returned there a few years later to begin working on a master’s degree in nonprofit management, which she completed in 2013.
Between her stints in West Lafayette, Molinder lived and worked in California and Washington, D.C. She moved back to Hancock County when she and her husband made plans to start a family, and she spent a few years working with the Department of Child Services.
When she looked into the future, Molinder imagined herself moving to Indianapolis to work with different city-based nonprofits or government agencies. But a conversation with Eaton one day at the end of last year changed her mind.
“Brent said to me, ‘This is the community I live in. This is where I grew up. This is where my children live, and I want to make a difference in this community,’” Molinder said. “It was like lightbulbs went off. He was absolutely right: We have to stay here in this community, work in this community and help develop this community. So, I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do this together,’ and (I realized) this isn’t just a job that I’m going to have.”
Kelly Buzan said she has felt the need for additional victim advocates around Hancock County for years. Buzan works for Alternatives Inc., a Madison County shelter that serves and assists victims of domestic violence. She’s stationed at the Greenfield Police Department, and for more than 10 years she has been the only victim advocate serving the area.
Buzan’s position, however, is mainly for domestic violence victims. While she’s happy to help those involved with other crimes, she said it’s a relief to know there is someone else who can handle those questions. This way, no case is missed, and more people are helped.
“We’ve been way behind in Hancock County with handling victim’s rights,” Buzan said. “While I’m more crisis-based, Katie is more court-based. Everyone understands a defendant’s rights, but victims have rights, too.”
Since she started, Molinder has begun to set goals for herself and her program, which are both funded by the Victim of Crime Act, and she’s been in touch with many victims whose cases are currently in legal proceedings.
Molinder said she’s careful during these times not to compare different people or situations; each case is different, she said, and she’s careful to always apply that logic.
“We are not the same. We have different goals. We have different life situations, and I am not going to tell you what I would do because that’s completely irrelevant to your life. But I’m going to let you tell me what will work for you, and I will help you find that resource,” she said. “I feel that I’m pretty good at that: talking to people in away that makes them feel heard and empowered. I want to be able to do what I’m good at and apply it in a good way.”
Molinder is meeting with law enforcement and child services agencies around the county to identify common victims’ needs in the community and finding ways to address them. She’s been attending free training sessions across the region to network with other advocates in the area and to learn about different services providers.
“It’s a tough deal because she’s starting with something that is brand new,” Eaton said. “But we feel fortunate to have Katie on our team, and she’s bringing a unique set of skills. She’s very dynamic and ambitious and passionate, and that rubs off on those around her.”