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Volunteers help crime victims in a model assistance program

IN a crowded, noisy courtroom, an elderly woman identifies the defendant as her assailant in an unsuccessful purse snatching. But under questioning by the defense attorney, she has trouble recalling the exact location of the crime. ``Well, all the police wagons were right there,'' the woman stammers. ``It happened right there, he must have been the same man the police picked up.''

Slightly bewildered, she leaves the preliminary hearing and walks into a waiting room, where a younger woman gives her a hug and a comforting word.

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``There's no right or wrong about doing this,'' says the younger woman, who wears a badge with the words ``Victim Support Volunteer.'' ``It can be difficult.''

As founder of the nonprofit Northwest Victim Services program, the young woman, Catherine Bachrach, daily helps victims and witnesses of crime cope with the judicial system.

The group, which is based in northwest Philadelphia, steers victims through hearings, lineups, continuances, trials, and sentencings. The group has helped about 3,000 people in the last five years.

The group's volunteers offer more than legal advice. They assist victims, many of them elderly, to overcome feelings of helplessness caused by the crime as well as by the judicial process.

``Being a victim can bring isolation and guilt,'' says Ms. Bachrach. ``We're trying to help people understand the system. Knowledge is power.''

The Philadelphia group is one of many that have sprung up across the nation in the last decade to help victims. There are about 5,000 such groups, many of which are small, nonprofit agencies based in a district attorney's office or neighborhood, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA).

The growth of such groups has been fueled by the Reagan administration's renewed emphasis on helping crime victims. Though federal outlays to combat crime have dropped dramatically under Reagan, the government is spending more than in the past on victim assistance -- about $100 million this year, of which $41 million will go to victim assistance groups and $25 million for compensation to crime victims, according to John Stein, NOVA's deputy director.

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``Victims programs clearly are first among equals,'' says Mr. Stein, whose group counts 3,500 victim-assistance agencies as members, compared with 300 in 1975. ``They were barely an afterthought in the mid-'70s.''

Most of the programs are aimed at crisis intervention -- helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

The Philadelphia group is among the few that have developed a broader, grass-roots approach to victim assistance. It has become a model for other community programs in Philadelphia, as well as across the nation.

The program's goal is not only to provide information but also to develop awareness within the community about crime. Victims are aided by volunteers who live in their own neighborhood, sometimes on their own block.

The program was founded in 1981 as a traditional ``town watch.'' But within a few months, Bachrach said, the staff was inundated with requests from crime victims for information about compensation, clarification of court procedures, and counseling.

``We recognized that there was a very distinct gap in the system,'' said Bachrach, a former Peace Corps volunteer, high school history teacher, and neighborhood activist. ``There were programs for victims of abuse and rape, but other victims were excluded.''

Volunteers began attending preliminary court hearings and offering information and advice to crime victims. The group, whose $70,000 annual budget is funded partly by private foundations, now uses 70 volunteers and covers four city police precincts, in which 15,000 felonies are reported annually.

``In most people's minds, burglary isn't seen as a particularly serious offense,'' said Bachrach. ``But when it happens two or three times in a community, or to one person, people need support services.''

Most clients are referred by other agencies. Volunteers attend preliminary hearings, where they meet victims and help explain court procedures. In many cases, they sit with clients during hearings.

Outside the court, volunteers visit victims, do shopping, help them gain compensation for crimes, and ferry them to hearings. With some cases dragging on for two years, volunteers become a regular fixture in their lives.

So far, the group counts among its successes better community relations with police and improved court facilities, including waiting rooms and one-way mirrors at lineups to prevent victims from being identified.

It may be impossible to determine whether the program reduces crime, but at least initially, it has led to an increase in the number of crimes reported, a phenomenon police and judicial experts say reflects less fear of retaliation.

``You expect crime to rise at first,'' says Stein of NOVA. ``Down the line, if the program is successful. you might expect to see it drop.''

Already that appears to be happening in northwest Philadelphia. While residents are more willing to report crime, criminals are avoiding those neighborhoods where the volunteers are most active, police say.

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