County welcomes new victim/witness services coordinator

BROOKVILLE — This week, District Attorney Jeffrey D. Burkett welcomed Michelle Fusco as the new victim/witness coordinator, who works to protect the rights of victims of adult offenders.

Fusco moved here from Elk County, where she has more than 14 years experience in Victim Services. She has worked specifically with crime victims for the last 10 years.

She said cases are given to her by law enforcement, district judges and self-referrals.

Fusco also accompanies a victim to court, informs him or her about the status of a case; if the defendant is getting out of jail; helps a victim recover losses and get property back; and talks to employers and sometimes bill collectors to explain a victim’s situation.

“You know to call the fire department when you have a fire, you know to call the police department when a crime has been committed against you, but not everyone knows that Victim Services exists in every county,” Fusco said.

Burkett said when he knew that Pat Berger, the outgoing victim/witness coordinator, left the position to become the executive director/forensic interviewer for Western Pa. Cares For Kids Child Advocacy Center, he was concerned as to who the county could hire as her successor.

Burkett said Dan Leonard, the juvenile victim/witness coordinator, knew about Fusco and her experience.

Immediately impressed with Fusco’s qualifications, Burkett said he didn’t go through a long interview process. And in 2001, Berger had trained Fusco for the Elk County position.

Services are free to anyone who is a victim of a crime. The filing of charges is not required to be eligible. This provides a valuable service to the court, since it has to assess restitution, and that information comes 100 percent of the time from the victim/witness personnel, he said.

Victim Services sends questionnaires and detailed packets of information to victims of crime to obtain information about how much a crime has cost them. Burkett said sometimes there are indirect costs, such as time attending court proceedings.

Judge John Foradora assesses each defendant when determining a victim/witness fee.

Burkett said the fee was first assessed in 2003, and has allowed the his office to bring the victim/witness position to full-time status.

“I guess it would be fair to say that no county tax dollars are used for this position and the juvenile victim/witness coordinator, because the money comes either from the grant or the victim/witness fee, which is paid for by offenders,” he said.

Berger served as the victim/witness coordinator for the last 18 years, assisting victims in three different counties.

In November 2009, she received training as a forensic interviewer from CornerHouse Child Abuse Evaluation and Training Center in Minneapolis, Minn.

In January, Berger accepted the full-time position at CARES, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the trauma, enhance physical, emotional and psychological safety and well-being of children through a timely, coordinated and specialized response to allegations of child abuse.

Victim Services is located in the Jefferson County Courthouse. Victims of adult offenders can reach Fusco at 849-1641, and victims of juvenile offenders can reach Leonard at 849-1663.