An almost 40-year tradition has been passed down to Shannon Barker, who has been named director of Henry County’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program.
First mandated in 1984 and established in 1985 by the General Assembly, the program has become an integral part of criminal justice proceedings for localities throughout the state. Its purpose is to provide legal, financial or administrative aid to people involved in violent crimes and certain other cases.
In rural counties like Henry, those who work for the Victim-Witness Assistance Program must wear multiple hats, something Barker said she is looking forward to. The program places an emphasis on victims and witnesses by making sure they are comfortable with the trials they are involved in. This includes preparing them for what they might expect, helping to secure babysitters and other support, and speaking on their behalf.
“I am blessed and honored to have the opportunity to serve as the director of the Victim-Witness Assistance Program,” Barker said. “Helping people is my passion, and I want our crime victims and witnesses to know they have a voice, to feel supported as they navigate the criminal justice system, and to be empowered to overcome their trauma. I look forward to continuing the great work that is already being done and finding new and exciting ways to enhance the program.”
She said she hopes to do this in a number of ways, including reaching out to spread the word about the work she and her three-person office do. She describes social media as a possible tool.
“I want to see awareness, I think there is a lack of that going on,” Barker said, adding that some law enforcement training is also under consideration.
Barker replaces Robin Byrd, a 47-year veteran of Virginia’s criminal justice system who’s now retired. Barker said that while she has big shoes to fill, this line of work is something she has spent years preparing for.
Her first job out of college was for the Martinsville-based Citizens Against Family Violence, which has since changed its name to the Southside Survivor Response Center. It’s a nonprofit advocacy group and hotline for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
“I worked there as the Martinsville victims’ advocate, pretty much doing court advocacy, also individual counseling, group counseling, safety planning,” Barker said, adding that her court advocacy work entailed going to court with victims to help them through the process.
She worked for Citizens Against Family Violence for five years before moving on to the Henry County’s commonwealth’s attorney’s office, which oversees the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Nester. She started out doing receptionist work and eventually moved to circuit court work. She worked for the commonwealth attorney’s office for seven years.
Barker said that working in victim advocacy requires a certain mentality, one that emphasizes empathy above other qualities.
“I just enjoy helping people, I like doing this kind of work,” she said. “I think this is an area there is a lot of need in.”
In 2021, Attorney General Mark Herring released a report that contextualizes instances of sexual and domestic violence in the state.
“In 2021, there were more than 70,000 calls to domestic and sexual violence hotlines across the state. A total of 3,939 adults and 2,361 children received 216,725 nights of emergency or temporary shelter due to domestic violence,” reads the report’s executive summary.
It’s a statewide issue, and Barker said Henry County and surrounding areas are no exception. She and her office deal with a wide variety of cases, from rape to homicide to domestic violence to property crimes.
“I didn’t realize how much of an issue there was here until I started doing the work,” Barker said. “There are a lot of cases that we know about and there are cases that we don’t even know because a lot of these victims don’t realize that they can come forward, that they have support.”
Providing support was the whole idea behind the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, according to Nester.
“It’s designed to help guide victims of crimes and also witnesses of crimes, and anybody … who has to go through the system,” Nester said. “It’s there to help them go through that process and help them know what’s going on through every step of the way. It’s a liaison, a lot of times, between the victim and our office.”
Nester described a sort of collaborative relationship between commonwealth’s attorney’s offices and their respective victim-witness programs, particularly in regards to managing witnesses.
“Anytime we have a big case, or a little case for that matter, they make sure that our witnesses were subpoenaed,” Nester said. “One thing for a prosecutor, a defense attorney, or anybody in court for that matter, you need to have all of your people there ready to go on your court date. There is nothing more frustrating to have everybody there and one or two people who are instrumental to your case not show up. They do an absolutely invaluable service to our office.”
Nester said he believes despite the work the Victim-Witness Assistance Program does for his office, he believes the real impact it has is on the communities it serves.
“There is no way to measure one of our victim advocates going with a person, from start to finish, and guiding them,” Nester said. “When I say it’s an invaluable service I don’t say that lightly. The number of people and lives that they have been involved with are countless and there is no way we can measure the impact they have had since they have come into existence.”
Barker said that while attorneys may know of the service the Victim-Witness Assistance Program provides, she wants to make it something the public is aware of.
“It’s a much-needed service,” Barker said. “We’re handling the human side. We’re making sure people know what their rights are and are informed of the process. We want people to feel like they have a voice that can be heard. That’s super important, we don’t want people to go through the system and feel like they are a chess piece.”