Victims, witnesses have a friend in court system
July 31, 2020
Being a victim of or witness to a crime is something we all hope to avoid. But should that situation befall the residents of Carlton County, it is reassuring to know there is an individual working in the Victim/Witness Services Division who will offer support and guidance throughout the judicial process. John Parenteau, the most recent person to hold this position stepped into the job in January.
Parenteau carries a wealth of experience to this office, having spent 28 years as sheriff’s deputy in Superior for Douglas County. He was a detective and then spent the final eight years of his tenure serving on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and as an investigator. As a result of this work, Parenteau is very familiar with the issues faced by victims of crime, judicial system procedures and how to educate victims or witnesses about what to expect throughout the process.
“Experience is the biggest thing,” said Carlton County attorney Lauri Ketola when discussing Parenteau’s qualifications for his job.
The concept of having a support system for victims and witnesses in the criminal court system began in the 1970s because prosecutors realized the likelihood of having testimony from those harmed by or witnesses of crimes would be greatly enhanced if there was a network of assistance available. The Office of Justice Programs led the development of these programs and part of the funding for Carlton County’s office is supplied by a federal grant from the OJP.
The Victim/Witness Services Division is part of the county attorney’s office. Even though Parenteau often advocates on behalf of victims, he and Ketola say he is a coordinator or liaison between the attorney’s office and the victims.
“I have to be transparent,” Parenteau said. He can’t hold his conversations with victims or witnesses as confidential. He is bound to provide any newly revealed information to the prosecutor’s office and could be called to testify. Parenteau said he refers victims to Family Pathways for counseling and advocacy services which can be held in confidence.
The Victim/Witness coordinator has many responsibilities, but the main one is to see that the victim’s rights are secured. This means they are notified of court dates as well as informed of their rights to restitution and reparation. Should there be a conviction, Parenteau assists in preparing an impact statement at the sentencing hearing. This is the victim’s opportunity to tell the judge of the emotional, physical, financial or mental toll the crime has taken on them, a daunting task for someone unfamiliar with the process.
There may be instances where a victim requires some financial help as well. Parenteau said he has a fund available for meeting immediate needs such as replacing a lock in the case of a burglary or a ruined cell phone that often results from domestic abuse. He said Family Pathways can provide further assistance.
Parenteau is a member of the county’s domestic abuse response team. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, it held monthly meetings. The team includes representatives from the Fond du Lac community, law enforcement officers and others who aid victims of domestic abuse. Ketola said domestic assault comprises the majority of the prosecuted cases. In regard to the pandemic and increased domestic assault cases, Ketola said “I think Covid had an effect,” as there has been a slight increase in cases.
The pandemic has altered procedures for prosecuting criminal cases, and in some instances, even though the victim has the right to attend hearings and court trials, it has proven difficult to manage gathering a jury pool, so those cases have been postponed. Some hearings have taken place with one or two people testifying, and Parenteau said there are plans to resume more in-person hearings next month. “We are looking forward to getting back on track and back in the courtroom, seeking justice for the victims,” he said.
As required by the federal funding grant, Parenteau must report on his interactions with victims. He has already served 306 victims with 828 contacts for service. The contacts include information about victims’ rights, notification of criminal justice events, emergency assistance and much more.
One of Parenteau’s other duties is community outreach. There were plans for him to teach internet safety at the schools, but that will wait for now. He wants to educate “aging Americans,” Parenteau’s preferred term for older adults, about internet safety since that age group is growing and are targets of scammers and fraud. Parenteau wants to be proactive in educating people so they don’t become victims.
“I like to help people,” Parenteau said. Those who are unsure about questionable mailings or internet activities and feel uncertain about contacting the police, he said, should contact his office. “I will do whatever I could to serve the people here in Carlton County.”
Ketola said Parenteau is a “real asset to our office. We are like-minded and want to do something proactive and impactful.”