CROWN POINT — The Lake County Prosecutor’s Office is seeking federal funds for its newly minted Special Victims Unit as part of a broader effort to prioritize sex crimes and domestic violence cases.
County prosecutors intend to ask for a $140,000 grant from the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women, which manages 19 separate grant programs under a 1994 federal domestic violence law.
The funds come from OVW’s STOP grant, a formula-based program used to help local jurisdictions develop strategies for prosecuting crimes against women and provide better assistance to victims.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Lake County Council gave the prosecutor’s office permission to move forward with its grant application. The county must apply to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which receives the federal funds and decides how much, if any, of the grant request will be awarded.
If the full grant request is approved, the county will kick in $35,000 in matching funds, bringing total program funding to $175,000 for the year, according to figures provided to The Times.
The STOP grant could give the Special Victims Unit some needed financial support. Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter created the unit last year in response to public outcry over the discovery of 5,000 untested rape kits across Indiana, including 238 in Lake County that dated back to the 1990s.
“[We] will now be better prepared to go to trial and obtain a guilty verdict or a good plea agreement and more jail time,” Carter said at the time.
The unit, initially formed as an all-female team of four deputy prosecutors, has a mandate to remove discretion from police about when to pursue sexual or domestic violence cases. Its attorneys also have specialized experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence, which can make victims feel more comfortable working with the prosecutor’s office.
But simply assigning knowledgeable staff is not enough to make it effective, county prosecutors say. The team needs STOP grant funding to pay for all the extra hours, additional duties and outside training initiatives its attorneys must perform in their new roles, according to deputy prosecutor Bob Neumaier.
“[The STOP grant] will include acquiring specialized training for the unit’s deputy prosecutors, who will in turn pass on that knowledge to local law enforcement and other victim services groups,” Neumaier wrote in his request to the county council. “The program will also seek to enlarge our victim services and assistance to those who have suffered sexual and/or domestic violence by designating a full-time victim/witness advocate exclusively to the unit."
One of the biggest impacts a successful STOP grant application would have is to allow the Special Victims Unit to switch its part-time victim advocate to a full-time position. The current advocate does not have enough time to manage her caseload with the unit along with other duties in the Victim Witness Division, according to Infinity Baulos, one of the unit’s four deputy prosecutors.
Under the proposed STOP grant budget, about $155,000 would be set aside for wages and employee benefits in the Special Victims Unit. The money would cover the full-time advocate’s entire salary plus benefits, along with supplemental pay for deputy prosecutors, whose caseload often requires up to 20 hours of additional work per week.
“The extra money will go toward community outreach and training,” Baulos told The Times, adding that deputy prosecutors are responsible for seeking out their own training opportunities from organizations such as the Police Chiefs of America and The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
The county’s STOP grant application is due April 5. Once the Criminal Justice Institute receives an application, it typically takes 30 to 60 days to decide whether to approve the grant and how much of it to award, Neumaier said.
County lawmakers must create the budget line items that will allow the Special Victims Unit to begin spending the money. Assuming the grant is approved, the unit expects the money to go toward operations in the period between July 1 and June 30, 2020, according to Neumaier.
The county council appears poised to move quickly to authorize the spending if the STOP grant is approved. On top of the council’s unanimous vote, Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, was outspoken in her support of the grant application during Tuesday’s council meeting.
“I’ve always been an advocate in the fight against domestic violence,” Cid told The Times on Wednesday. “I know too many women who have suffered domestic violence — it’s close to my heart.”