RENSSELAER — Eileen Phegley, the victim assistant for the Jasper County Prosecutor’s Office, spoke to members of the Rensselaer Chamber of Commerce during the organization’s monthly luncheon Wednesday.
This month’s luncheon was held in the basement of the city’s hospital, Franciscan Health Rensselaer. Fittingly enough then, Phegley’s presentation described how she helps to protect the office’s clients from receiving additional mental injuries due to the strain of a domestic violence case.
“A great many of you working in a medical setting know that, in trauma situations, lots of times, all the details don’t come up right away,” she said. “We’ve often discovered things later on, important details and so forth that are pertinent to the case.”
Phegley entered the job while still not entirely aware of all the various duties that it entails.
“(This) was a position that I didn’t know existed until it was offered to me,” she said, after describing her previous career as a kindergarten teacher. “And, probably, that’s the same for some of you.”
Her preparation included training in how to deal with situations involving sexual assault, domestic violence, strangulation, stalking and other “things that we don’t like to think about.”
“Having said that, I love my job,” she said. “And I think education is critical for us to face these problems.”
She described the position as part secretary, part clerk, part counselor, part psychologist and part advocate.
“It’s my job to be a liaison, or a buffer if you will, between the criminal justice system and someone who’s become a victim of a crime,” she said.
Her job also includes effort to minimize potential for more trauma as it arises.
“Most people don’t know what happens during the process of a criminal case,” she said. “But it can be very difficult and long.”
Phegley first gets an idea of how she’s going to communicate with a victim by reviewing their file from the criminal case and asking them to fill out a form. They will be able to tell her everything from the exact nature of the situation to the ways it has impacted them and to the specific things they would like to be made aware of in the case, such as whether or not a plea agreement is possible.
“I notify victims according to what they’ve asked and let them know about the process of our case,” she said.
The job has taught Phegley that justice and/or peace must often be accepted in many different forms after a traumatic incident.
“I may be the only person, apart from the prosecutor, that they’re going to express their feelings (to) about what happens,” she said. “I didn’t know this, but it’s not like ‘Law and Order.’ There’s no swift and terrible justice. And, sometimes, justice for people comes in just being able to express themselves, to have their story heard and then, unfortunately — and it sounds so cliched — but to go on and live their best life afterwards. You don’t always get satisfaction for victims in a criminal proceeding.”
To that end, however, Phegley noted that the county does possess many resources for those struggling with mental trauma, such as the Northwest Indiana Rural Crisis Center or Valley Oaks Health.