LACONIA — Justice is blind but not deaf, according to Belknap County Victim Witness Coordinator Barbara Belmont.
For the past 28 years Belmont has worked to give victims and those who witness crimes a voice in the criminal justice process.
“They didn’t ask for it, someone did something bad to them. It’s unfair; that’s what I tell people and give them some acknowledgement,” said Belmont, who plans to retire Jan. 1.
When she joined the prosecutor’s office in July 1991, Belknap County was among the last of the 10 counties to hire an advocate to help those impacted by crime navigate the justice system and get the resources to heal.
When Belmont started, the county’s criminal caseload was handled by just two attorneys, one secretary and herself, and she shared a computer with one of the prosecutors. She’s been involved with thousands of cases since that time but claims to have lost count.
“I just do what’s in front of me,” she said.
Unlike the television show Law & Order, in real life the wheels of justice move far slower.
“It’s a very hard system to understand and it is always changing. That’s difficult for people,” says Belmont, who conceded that getting victims to comprehend that it may take a year or more for their case to come to trial and it then could be rescheduled is not an easy task.
“In many cases they’ve suffered trauma. Their brains are still in a fight, flight and flee mode,” Belmont said.
Sitting in an oak rocking chair with a handmade quilt hanging on the wall behind her, Belmont explains the drapes and the couch crowded with flowered pillows were added to give the room a homey feel in hopes of putting stressed people at ease.
To make the process of testifying less frightening, Belmont takes her youngest victims to the second floor of the historic courthouse, introduces them to the badge-wearing, handcuff-toting bailiffs and asks them to unlock courtroom one.
A framed, typewritten letter hanging on the wall just left of the door was authored by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, recounting that in was in his early years at the bench that this very courtroom, became his favorite.
The historic brick courthouse with its tower and arched windows is one of the few in the state that remains in use as originally intended. In the main courtroom benches made of quarter sawn oak that have seated prospective jurors and families impacted by crime for more than a century still remain.
Belmont shepherds her youngest charges to the witness box, where they will sit under the gaze of 12 jurors and the watchful eye of a black-robed judge.
She still remembers a crayon drawing given to her early on in her career by a child victim of sexual abuse. It depicted a towering bench with a gavel-clutching man glowering down. Her detailed drawing of herself on the witness stand included her carefully plaited pigtails but was without a mouth. The jury box contained 12 figures all with oversize eyes.
“They don’t feel they have a voice. I like to think I help give them one,” said Belmont.
Many adult victims have the same impression as that child, Belmont said, but aren’t able to express it so clearly. Their biggest fear is reprisal from the defendant and are concerned that their address will become public.
“If they know where they are going to have to sit, what is going to be expected of them, it helps,” Belmont said “You can’t tell them what to say but if you can get them into the chair, take a deep breath, promise to tell the truth they can sit down and get their bearings.”
Under the Victims’ Bill of Rights, Belmont said, those impacted by a crime have the right to make an impact statement when the offender is sentenced. Some people decline to speak, finding it causes painful memories to resurface. Others find it empowering and still others become overwhelmed during the process and Belmont steps in to finish reading their statement to the court.
“Every time I read a police report, I feel for them,” Belmont said of the victims she assists.
She said she feels rewarded when she sometimes crosses paths with victims, often years later, and discovers they have persevered, moved on and in most cases recovered from something they never thought they would experience in their lives.
Belmont said she is comfortable stepping away from the job now that two of her dreams have been accomplished.
The first was to have a free-standing Child Advocacy Center that offers child victims of sexual and physical abuse a place where they can receive medical services, recount their trauma to a trained forensic interviewer and receive counseling.
Her second wish come true is the New Hampshire VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) Service provided by the New Hampshire Department of Justice. It lets victims of crime and other concerned citizens confidentially register to be notified by phone, text, mobile app, email or TTY that an offender in custody at a County House of Corrections is being released.
The tailored suits that have been Belmont’s office attire throughout her career will be dry-cleaned and donated to a Concord charity that provides professional clothes to needy women to wear to a job interview.
“I’ve been so lucky and grateful. I really am,” said Belmont.