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Published: Monday, 8/22/2005

Child victims of assault have an advocate

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

At the end of a hallway, in an office where posters of Powerpuff Girls and former quarterback Tim Couch adorn the walls, a set of gray index card boxes is tucked in a desk drawer.

It is here that assistant Lucas County prosecutor Lori Olender has filed them - the names and details of the men and women who have committed horrific crimes against the county's youngest residents. Their acts carve lasting scars on their victims, often splintering families. On these cards are their crimes, their victims, their sentences.

Ms. Olender, the county's prosecutor for cases of sexual and physical assault cases of juvenile victims, is matter-of-fact about the system. "It's the easiest way I know to keep them all straight," she said during break between court hearings.

Here, in this cramped office, it is Ms. Olender's job to sort out accusations and evidence, walk ragged victims through an often-imperceptibly slow court process, and formulate cases that put perpetrators behind bars.

Her boss calls Ms. Olender among the best in her field.

"Prosecutors all have different strengths and weaknesses," said county Prosecutor Julia Bates. "What makes someone a good trial prosecutor dealing with children might be something different than what makes a good prosecutor in a white-collar case or in writing up appellate work."

Ms. Olender's strengths, Mrs. Bates said, include "a very big heart and the ability to connect with kids mixed with the ability to separate out the pain associated with these cases and go forward with a case objectively."

Hired to prosecute child abuse cases in 1998, Ms. Olender in recent years has increasingly shared courtrooms with television cameras.

Among her high-profile cases: a Sylvania woman who sexually assaulted a 4-year-old girl and sent photos of the molestation over the Internet; an HIV-positive central-city man who molested several teenage boys; and an East Toledoan charged after neighbors found kiddie porn outside his burned home where four children died in a fire.

Each ended with a conviction.

Ms. Olender, who obtained her law degree from the University of Toledo, is known for her passion in the courtroom and her solid handle on laws involving child abuse.

"There's plenty of us and one of her, and she still manages to do a great job," said Tonya Rider, a Toledo police detective.

For her part, Ms. Olender said one of the most difficult parts of her job is not in the excruciating case details or in building a prosecution with scant physical evidence. It's dealing with parents who don't want to believe the awful allegations. Often the offender is an uncle or boyfriend or husband or other loved one.

Ms. Olender shakes her head, recalling a mother whose daughter was raped by the woman's husband. The mother's first thought, Ms. Olender said, was of her own financial security if the defendant went to jail rather than of the needs of her daughter. "She leaned over and said, 'It'll be your fault if we have to live in an apartment,' " she said.

These days, the 1988 Whitmer High graduate is piecing together the rape case against 22-year-old Jeremy Quinn, who was accused of four attacks on women when he was just 13 years old. He is now charged with abducting a 16-year-old at knife point and repeatedly raping her.

Since the attack, Ms. Olender has built a rapport with the teen, delicately drawing out harsh details during an initial interview and for a grand jury. When family members showed up at a pretrial hearing days later, Ms. Olender made time to explain the process, said the mother of the young victim. "She must be an exceptional person to do this," the mother said.

Ms. Olender simply shrugs when asked, as she has been countless times: How do you deal with such pain, day after day?

She acknowledges that wading through medical photos, interviewing fragile victims, and calming distraught family members make her job far from the office's most envied position. "They used to ask me once a year how I was doing, if I was all right," she said, laughing. "Now they don't even bother."

Her escape? She's a self-proclaimed "reading maniac" - she is bored by crime stories but stood in line at midnight for the newest Harry Potter book - and dabbles in cooking. Part of a tight-knit family, she spends free time with her two sisters, cousins, their children, and others.

"You know, I don't really have a good answer to what makes someone burn out and not someone else," she said. "I guess if one day I feel like I'm starting to lose my perspective, I'll try to do something else. But right now, I know how to leave work at work and have fun at home. And I think I'm still making a difference while I'm here."

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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