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Henry gets advocate for victims of abuse

Photo by Elaine Rackley
Marjorie Lacy (left), executive director of the Henry County domestic violence shelter, Haven House, works closely with the  police department's Violence Against Women Act Liaison, Sonya Richey. In May, Richey had 74 family violence cases.

Photo by Elaine Rackley Marjorie Lacy (left), executive director of the Henry County domestic violence shelter, Haven House, works closely with the police department's Violence Against Women Act Liaison, Sonya Richey. In May, Richey had 74 family violence cases.

Sonya Richey bridges the gap between law enforcement and female victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults.

"My first priority is to make sure they are safe," said Richey, of her role as the new Henry County Police Department's Violence Against Women Act Liaison.

"Once victims learn that [the violence] is a cycle of abuse, then they are more willing to make a decision to do something about it," she said.

In her role, Richey is working to guide victims to that decision. "I try to change their thought process, I try to empower them," she said. "You are no longer a victim, you are a survivor, and then, we make a plan to move forward in their lives."

Richey began her assignment four months ago. Her job is to receive all family violence cases involving female victims, ages 12 and up. "I review the case, then I make contact with the victim," said Richey. "I go over what happened, to identify what they need." She said she prefers to speak with the victims while they are alone, "one on one."

A 911 call for help jump-starts Richey's intervention. A police report is prepared an officer. That report is turned over to Richey, who steps in to offer security and assistance. She said some of her cases are more serious than others. When victims may need medical attention, Richey is there to escort the victim, or meet the victim at the hospital.

Richey works to ensure that the victim understands the court process. She collaborates with the Henry County District Attorney's Office and the Solicitor General's Office, in order to follow the cases through the court system.

"I also check to see if there are other resources they may need, such as counseling for the family," she said. "Sometimes, all they need is the basic information about what happens next, such as the name of the detective who will follow-up on the case."

Richey works closely with Haven House Executive Director Marjorie Lacy and her staff. Haven House is a local shelter for women.

Some victims require a "safety plan," which could include a Temporary Protection Order (TPO), or alternative housing. "I sit in on TPO hearings to keep the victim informed of any criminal charges, and continue contact with them to make sure the case is resolved," said Richey.

She said she is aided in her efforts Eboni Lemon, Haven House's legal advocate. Lemon helps victims when they are writing statements to include in the TPO. TPOs are important in Richey's line of work because, once they are approved, an offending husband has to leave the home, said Lemon. They also give victims time to begin divorce proceedings, said Lemon.

Richey often is on hand when abusers are arrested. She said she is there to give direction, and encouragement. Richey maintains that the downturn in the economy contributes to the heavy caseload she is experiencing. She also said that social media may be adding to her workload.

In May, she worked 74 violence against women cases. In many instances, the victim was unemployed, living with an abuser, or in an abusive relationship. "They compromise getting out of the situation for fear of what will happen to them or their children," said Richey.

"Now, we see a rise in domestic violence cases as a result of social media networks, such as facebook, e-mails, cell phones, and texting," she explained. "There are accusations and allegations of inappropriate relationships."

Richey brings a wide range of experience to her job. She has worked in law enforcement since 1988. She began her career as a Fulton County Sheriff's Deputy. In 1996, she worked with the Olympics Security Division, training security volunteers, and with Department of Defense military personnel. In 1995, she was a member of the Georgia Sexual Assault Task Force. In 1996, she worked as a consultant for the Emory University School of Medicine Regional Training Center. In 1998, her book, "Georgia Response to Sexual Assault Law Enforcement Training Curriculum," was published.

She and her husband, John, have been married for 20 years. They have three children, Jonathan, 19, Joshua, 15, and Justin 13.

Richey said domestic violence does not limit itself to an impact on adults, but to the children involved, as well. "One of my soft spots is children, and how domestic violence affects them," she said. "I often refer victims to [Haven House] for services that can support their children."

In Henry County, she said, she has gotten support in her work from Carey Smith, a children's social worker for Haven House. She executes the Children Obtaining A Peaceful Environment (COPE) program for children who have witnessed violence in the home. The program, said Smith, works to eliminate feelings of guilt or shame [that children may have].

"Sometimes, the children feel guilty. Maybe they had to call 911, or they feel like they are caught in the middle of their parents' dispute," said Smith.