Start by Believing. Nine years ago, as a baby prosecutor I heard this phrase and I’ve never forgotten it. I don’t even remember where I heard it for the first time, but it rings in my head every time I review a new case. These three words are so simple, yet they have the power to change lives.
In 2017, I was given an opportunity by the Redwood County Board of Commissioners to protect and serve victims in Redwood County. When I was appointed Redwood County Attorney those three simple words became my mantra. Our mantra. In our office we start by believing. Always. With every report. We start by believing. We then take that belief and conduct a multidisciplinary, trauma informed investigation and prosecution. Thankfully we are supported in this approach by law enforcement, advocates, and other community partners.
Here I pause to insert an important caveat. When I talk about what I do, I always say “we” and “our” because I do not and could not do this alone. Ending violence against women in Redwood County is a team effort that requires a commitment across disciplines. In our office we have three attorneys, three legal support staff, and one crime victim services coordinator. Across the street and around the County we have officers in blue, brown, and maroon who show up every day. We have tireless advocates, social workers, teachers, and community members who listen and who believe. We’re incredibly fortunate to have Child’s Place within Redwood County who has a staff of four dedicated solely to giving children victims a voice. These folks are the real MVPs. Next time you see them say thank you and buy them a cup of coffee or several.
Fast forward six years to 2023 and this multidisciplinary start by believing approach led us to Chicago to be a part of End Violence Against Women International and their International Conference on Sexual Violence, Domestic Assault, and Fighting for Change. Made possible by our grant from OJP myself, Shannon Ness, Assistant Redwood County Attorney, and Denise Kerkhoff, Crime Victim Services Coordinator spent three days listening and learning surrounded by 2,000 others from around the country and world who also start by believing. If you’ve spent any time with me you’ve likely heard me say if you’re not growing you’re dying and this was an exceptional opportunity for us to grow, learn, and be inspired and rejuvenated by others fighting to end violence against women.
Investigating and prosecuting cases involving violence against women is challenging, but so is reporting one. Trauma is inherently inflicted upon everyone involved in the process. The Victim. The Victims family. The investigator or law enforcement officer involved. Their family. The prosecutor. The prosecutor’s family. Vicarious trauma is real and it takes its toll on even the strongest, most dedicated. However, when you Start by Believing you have the very real possibility of minimizing the trauma and maximizing positive outcomes. Positive outcomes does not just mean convictions and long prison sentences for these egregious acts (don’t get me wrong we like those too - after all we’re a prosecutor’s office), it also means we’ve helped a Victim find their voice. We’ve helped one victim start the transformation from feeling like a Victim into a knowing they are a Survivor. That’s why this group of dedicated professionals shows up. There’s a possibility every day of helping one person.
In life we have to have hope and in this line of work to survive we also have to have hope that we can, through our work, end violence against women. However, in order to end violence against women, it takes all of us. Law enforcement, advocates, prosecutors, the justice system cannot do it alone. It takes all of us. A big first step starts within the walls of our own home. It starts with how we raise our children. How we raise our boys and how we raise our girls.
We all have a role and each one of us can be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Have these tough conversations with your kids. Raise them to respect. Teach them to want to listen.
Raise them to be confident in who they are. Teach them to understand no means no. Raise them to treat others with grace and dignity. Teach them to start by believing.
In Redwood County we start by believing. Join us. Be part of the solution. Believe we can end violence against women. Against children. Believe we can end violence. Period.
I’m so proud of the work we’ve done in the last six years. There’s so much more left to do, but progress requires reflection on both the accomplishments and the failures. I hope our response makes Victims feel safe, I hope our response makes a Victim feel like a Survivor, and more than anything I hope our response lightens the load of trauma for each victim and their family. I also know our response is not perfect and that we can always do better so we will remain dedicated to this approach and committed to doing the best we can for Victims while holding offenders accountable.
To learn more about Start by Believing and take the Pledge visit https://startbybelieving.org/pledge/ or visit our Crime Victim Services website https://redwoodcounty-mn.us/crime-victim-services/