The only person employed by Flathead County to conduct victim advocacy retired from her position earlier this month, and her job remains open as a local nonprofit fills the void while simultaneously working to expand services and reinforce a partnership with the county attorney’s office.
Janiece Hamilton spent nearly 40 years working in advocacy, including the last 10 as the Flathead County crime victims advocate where she counseled victims of all types of crime but did the majority of her work with victims of domestic violence. Hamilton spent the last four years working out of the Flathead County Attorney’s Office where she monitored incoming incident reports and was referred a steady stream of victims by the county clerk. Her vast job responsibilities included helping victims navigate the legal system and file orders of protection, providing on-site support during trials, sharing best practices for staying safe in times of crisis, and offering referrals to other community resources.
“In her time as a victim advocate in Flathead County she served a number of different individuals and we’re very thankful for the service that she has provided for victims in this county,” County Attorney Travis Ahner said.
Hamilton’s last day on the job was Friday, Oct. 2. Since then, victims of domestic violence have been referred by the clerk’s office to Amy Meyer, an advocate employed by the nonprofit Abbie Shelter in Kalispell. Meyer had already been doing full-time advocacy connected to municipal courts and police departments in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls to serve victims in those jurisdictions, and the Abbie Shelter and Meyer are doing their best to continue to support victims despite a significantly increased workload, a small source of frustration for the nonprofit’s top official.
“Our community has been beyond incredibly supportive of us for the last six months because we knew that our needs would increase (because of COVID-19),” Abbie Shelter Executive Director Hilary Shaw said. “But this is a human-caused need, not a virus-caused need. It does come at an incredibly inconvenient time where we’re all straining under the increased weight of danger and need and crisis.”
Shaw added that the organization, a resource for domestic violence victims that goes far beyond providing shelter to those who require it, has been able to add some temporary staff to help with the influx of new work. And Shaw pledged that she and her coworkers would find a way to help anyone in need for the foreseeable future.
“We will do whatever we can to continue filling this need as long as we have to,” she said. “This is a huge need for survivors in our community. We hold it as the highest priority.”
No job posting has been listed for Hamilton’s open position while Ahner and Shaw work together to craft a job description and, potentially, redefine the role. The next advocate will continue to work out of the county attorney’s office, Ahner said, while adding that there is some discussion about bringing another victims advocate to the mix, one likely employed outside his office.
Advocates, including Shaw, pleaded for reform in the victim advocacy programs in Flathead County in the weeks after a horrific triple homicide in Olney in late June, a crime perpetrated by a longtime abuser of one of the victims. At the time, their concerns centered around Hamilton’s unmanageable workload as the sole victims advocate in a county of more than 100,000 people, and breakdowns between the county attorney’s office, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Flathead County District Court that, they said, allowed some victims to slip through the cracks.
Today, Shaw and Ahner are both hopeful some reform could be on the horizon, even as Hamilton’s old chair sits empty. The two have spoken more frequently since the triple homicide and Ahner said he was eager to fill the position, but “rather than rushing … we want to make sure we’re getting it right.”
“I’ve been in conversations (with Shaw) about the coordination among the victims advocates to see how we can best serve the victims, avoid overlap and make sure there’s service provided to every single one,” Ahner said. “We’re trying to take the opportunity right now to restructure things to make sure we have the best program we can have going forward.”
If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, the Abbie Shelter operates a 24-hour crisis helpline at (406) 752-7273. Additional information can be found at www.abbieshelter.org.
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