Victims of crime not only have to suffer the trauma of the offense itself, but often are required to take part in the ensuing court process, which holds its own confusion, stress and sometimes suffering.
That’s where Carol Little steps in.
“The criminal justice system can be a very difficult system to navigate through,” said Little, a victim advocate at the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. “They’ve already been through trauma, and we don’t want to add to that trauma.”
Little has worked as a victim advocate for the District Attorney’s Office for the past 25 years, specializing in working with victims of child sexual assault, as well as leading the victim compensation program.
Recently, Little won the Victim Advocate of the Year Award after a statewide committee reviewed victims advocates across the state, and recognized her work.
“It’s her body of work over time, that’s what is so impressive,” said District Attorney Christian Champagne. “And people see how much she really wants to help them to the best of her abilities.”
Little was born and raised in Durango, went to Fort Lewis College and, admittedly, never planned a career as a victim advocate.
But when the opportunity came up, Little realized how much she enjoyed helping people, and thought it might be a good fit. A quarter-century later, and she remains committed to the work.
“When I started, I just had no idea how traumatizing criminal events really are,” she said. “It expands to their family, their work life. It’s an impact on their life in so many ways.”
After Little makes initial contact with a victim, she keeps them updated about the case, gets their input on certain decisions and tries to coordinate witnesses should the case go to trial.
Champagne said victim advocates are one of the “great revolutions in the criminal justice system in the last 20 years,” placing a focus on victims and making sure their voice is heard.
There are five victim advocates at the District Attorney’s Office.
Champagne said the weight of Little’s job is made even heavier because she works with some of the most sensitive victims: children who have been sexually abused.
“You’re delving into really sensitive topics with people, and having someone like Carol to navigate those waters ... with a deft touch and expertise and caring, that’s what comes across to people,” he said.
Little estimated she works with about 100 victims a year, though not all are sex-abuse victims. But for those who are, she has seen some amazing moments during the worst times of people’s lives.
“It’s amazing the strength some of the kids and families have,” she said. “There’s a strength we all have that you don’t see until you have to use it. I think that’s true for everybody.”
Of course, it’s hard to watch people suffer throughout the court process, Little said. But helping in those moments is what is so rewarding, and she said it is encouraging to watch people heal.
“Sometimes the struggle to get to healing is really hard,” she said.
Watching and being involved in that process can take a personal toll.
“Sometimes things sit with me, but for the most part, I’m able to separate my work life from my home life,” Little said. “I deal with it much differently now than I did when I first started. It was harder.”
Deputy District Attorney-Appellate Sean Murray said working in a District Attorney’s Office can be incredibly difficult at times because of the stress and vicarious trauma.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’” he said. “Carol is the best reminder of why. She gives her all to victims. Her passion for justice and her selflessness are incredibly inspiring.”
Little has also led the victim compensation fund for years, which helps victims pay for expenses incurred because of the crime committed but not covered by insurance or other sources.
Little helps victims go through the application process, which is ultimately approved or denied by a three-member board. She said the program, which is funded by fees tacked on when someone is convicted, usually sends out $75,000 to $100,000 a year to victims.
“Victim compensation may get involved to help people follow through with therapy they can’t afford or medical expenses insurance doesn’t cover,” she said. “And it can also be part of restitution.”
Little said after the court process wraps up, victims usually move onto other services, out of her office. She’d like to know what the success stories are or how they’re doing, but more often than not, it is on to helping the next victim.
“We have a job to do, and that’s what we do,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll stay in touch ... but it’s a part of their life they need to move on from.”