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Published: Monday, 7/18/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Program opens doors for victims to talk to convicts

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledoan Russ Simpson, the father of two children who were murdered,  became a victims' advocate. Toledoan Russ Simpson, the father of two children who were murdered, became a victims' advocate.
THE BLADE/LISA DUTTON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Marie knew something had to change.

It had been several years since she and a roommate had been brutally assaulted in their apartment in suburban Westerville, Ohio, and yet she still felt the rage.

She felt it creep into her decisions and into her relationships with others. She knew it could overtake her on a moment's notice. She recognized that it kept her from living a normal life, one not overrun by the memory of a masked man raping her and her roommate at gunpoint when they were only 23 years old.

She knew something had to change.

For Marie, now 42 and living in Columbus, that change came in the form of a conversation with the least likely person: the rapist himself.

"People may think that this is revictimization, but sometimes you have to face the beast," she said in a recent phone interview.

"It was truly a path of not wanting to live the way I was living," she added. "I hated being that person. I thought that forgiveness might help."

Marie was able to sit down face to face with the serial rapist in prison as part of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction's victim-offender dialogue program. In place since 1997, the program opens the door for victims to initiate a conversation with the offenders who were convicted and imprisoned for their crimes.

The process is initiated solely by the victim and is strictly voluntary on the part of the offender. And at any point in the lengthy preparation process, either victim or offender can decide to back out.

100 dialogues to date

To date, about 100 dialogues have successfully taken place statewide, said Karin Ho, administrator for the state's Office of Victim Services.

"We realize this is a minority of individuals who want to go through the program, but for those who do they are passionate about it," she said.

"There are so many different reasons why someone would want to do this. A victim may have questions that have been burning within them for years like 'What were my son's last words? or 'Did he suffer when he died?' " Ms. Ho added. "On the other hand, the offender on the other side of the table has to be held accountable. They have to be willing to answer questions."

Ms. Ho admitted that impetus for the program came from victims -- requests that initially took those in the prison system off guard. In particular, the mother of a murder victim asked in November, 1995, to speak to the man who had killed her daughter.

At the time, it was a request that could not be easily granted, Ms. Ho said.

"Because of that request and other calls, we started looking around to see if there was something out there to model after," she said. It would take about two years to build a program, she added.

One key component was facilitators. The office needed people who could interview and prepare both victims and offenders for a meeting.

Seeking out both victim advocates and prison employees, the office began training facilitators, whose job it was to guide those involved through the process.

Toledoan Russ Simpson, a longtime victims' advocate, answered the call.

"Somehow or another, I was one of the 36 original people chosen to take the training," Mr. Simpson said of the week-long instruction. He then began meeting victims all over the state who sought out a dialogue through the program.

The father of two children who were murdered -- in separate incidents and years apart -- Mr. Simpson said he understood the need for a victim to seek out answers. He said he believed the program could help achieve that purpose.

Victims' questions

To Learn More
For more information about Victim Offender
Dialogue, go online at drc.ohio.gov or call the
Office of Victim Services at 614-728-1976. A victim
line is also available at 888-842-8464.

"Victims always seem to have questions. Some are off the wall and some are basic," he said. "Mostly victims want to meet an offender to get information that never came out in a trial, or if there was a plea in the case, then there never was a trial."

For those who lost a loved one to homicide, the burning question usually is whether the victim suffered, Mr. Simpson said.

Victims of other sorts of violent crime usually want to know "Why me?"

Mr. Simpson noted that the dialogue is not for everyone.

In fact, the advocacy group that he is heavily involved in -- Parents of Murdered Children -- continues to actively petition prison officials to remove offenders from prisons in the cities where their victims live. The reason is that some people cannot stand the thought that the offender is eating three square meals a day just a stone's throw away, he said.

But for those who need a face-to-face encounter, the program opens doors, he said. "The program itself is a good program. It has benefits from both the victim's and offender's perspectives," he said.

Drawbacks

However, with the completion of about a dozen cases to date, Mr. Simpson said he has asked to be removed from the list of facilitators. Although he sees the benefits of the program, he noted some drawbacks as well.

Namely, the length of time it can take between the time a victim contacts program officials and the actual meeting with the offender.

Because of the schedules of all the participants involved, it can take months, if not years, before completion, he said.

And to truly be successful, offenders must accept responsibility for their crimes. That component, Mr. Simpson added, is not always a guarantee.

That was not the case for Gregory Parks, 41, who was sentenced in 1995 to a maximum of 380 years in prison for multiple rapes and robberies in Franklin County. He agreed to meet with Marie and to accept responsibility for the reign of terror he created in 1993.

Marie -- whose last name was withheld because The Blade does not identify victims of sexual assault -- said that she learned a lot about Parks and his background through questions she posed to the facilitators months before she ever saw his face.

And although much of what she needed to know had already been discovered, she went through the barbed-wire gates where Parks was institutionalized to finally confront her rage once and for all.

"Forgiveness truly is for you and not for the other person," she said.

"For me, I looked at the man that I had built up in my head as a monster and I realized, he's just a crazy man. He's just a man who had a shattered psyche and I can forgive just a man. It's hard to forgive a monster," she added. "Eight-five percent of who he is is just a goofy little dude."

Need for volunteers

Prison officials recognize that many victims are not aware that the program exists or how to initiate the process.

They are also in need of volunteers to train and serve as facilitators.

In the Toledo area, there is a significant need for volunteers to help guide victims through the process, Ms. Ho said.

Marie said only a few people supported her desire to see her assailant and she knows many will never understand why it was something she had to do.

But with the assistance of her faith in God and of the man who took so much away from her, she was able to finally do something she couldn't seem to do alone -- move forward.

"The dialogue has helped me distance myself and package it up and put it on a shelf," she said.

"I walked out of that prison 6 inches taller and 30 pounds lighter. I left so much there. It was an incredible experience."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com, or 419-213-2134.



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