By Ed Brock
It was during a ceremony for National Crime Victims' Rights Week that Sheila Dates was able to begin coping with the violent death of her daughter.
"It was the first time I didn't feel like I was alone," said Dates, whose 21-year-old daughter Regina Dates was strangled to death on Aug. 31, 1999.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of Crime Victims' Rights Week, initiated in 1981 by President Reagan. The purpose of the week is to elevate awareness of what must be done to help people like Dates as they suffer the after effects of crime.
On that day in August five years ago, Dates was living in Jonesboro and was the manager of a check cashing company in Marietta. Keith Darnel Henry and his wife Belinda came to the door of the Pointe South condominium where Dates and her daughter were living and, posing as FBI agents, forced their way in.
The Henrys wanted money. Keith Henry stayed at the condo with Regina Dates while Belinda Dates rode with Sheila Dates to Marietta to empty the safe at the check cashing company. While they were gone, Keith Henry strangled Regina Dates.
After getting the money Belinda Henry tried to strangle Sheila Dates and left her for dead. Keith and Belinda Henry then went on the run, committing robberies in other states before police surrounded them in a New Jersey hotel room.
Belinda Henry committed suicide before police could capture her. Keith Henry later confessed to killing Regina Dates. He was originally sentenced to death but last year the Supreme Court of Georgia overturned that decision and Henry entered a plea that led to a life sentence.
"If he spends the rest of his life in prison and isn't able to hurt anybody else I'm satisfied," said Dates, now 53 and living in Griffin.
After going to that first Crime Victims' Rights Week memorial service she attended at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Dates began attending support groups. She started getting a new perspective on what happened to her and especially what happened to her daughter. That's something that's important to the loved ones of those who are killed by some violent crime.
"We have a tendency to focus on the tragedy of their deaths and not the life they had before the event," Dates said.
The week is also important for emphasizing what remains to be done.
Stevette Harris of Conley was in an abusive relationship for three years. On April 29, 2003 her ex-husband violently assaulted her.
"He choked me and left me for dead," Harris said.
Her ex-husband is now in jail, serving a four-year sentence, but in June 2007 he is scheduled for release. Harris plans to get a permanent protection order against him.
"So at least at that time I'll have some kind of protection," Harris said.
However, she worries that, as she's seen on the news, the protection order won't be enough to keep her safe.
The number of victims goes up every year, said Susan Bass, Victims' Assistance coordinator for Clayton County's Superior and Juvenile courts. She wasn't sure if that was due to an increase in the population or an increase in the crime rate.
They help any victim of crime who asks for assistance, providing education and referral for counseling.
"We spend a lot of time with family of homicide victims," Bass said.
From Oct. 1, 2003 to Sept. 30, 2004, Bass' office helped 3,853 victims of felonies or crimes committed by juveniles.
Jenitha Nunnally performs the same service for victims of misdemeanor crimes. She works out of the Clayton County Solicitor General's Office.
Another purpose of this week is to assure victims of crime that "justice is on their side."
"The most important thing is spreading awareness and letting victims know that justice isn't served until crime victims are," Nunnally said.
Meanwhile, April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the two events go hand in hand, said Jennifer Bivins, president of the Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center.
"It's very important for all victims service agencies to work together and collaborate so we can make sure victims of crime are given proper treatment," Bivins said.
Too often the focus is on the rights of the criminals and not the rights of the victims, Bivins said.
Earlier this month the SCSAC held events like "Jeans for Justice" in which participants where jeans to work to show support for sexual assault victims and the "Walk In My Shoes" event at the Georgia capitol.
Next week they will present pins to law enforcement officers in Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties. On April 23 they will hold a "Sexual Assault Awareness Month Safety Carnival." Call (770) 603-4045 for more information.