MADISON, Wis. (AP) - When Lisa Penterman was coping with the dark days following a sexual assault, she found support and comfort in a trained therapist who took some of the rough edges off the ensuing trip through the criminal justice system, including her attacker's trial.
That therapist, Sally Smarzinski, became an "angel on the shoulder" for Penterman. Some five years later, Penterman is throwing her support behind legislation to allow such advocates to accompany a victim - at his or her request - at any stage in the legal process.
The proposal comes from Assembly Assistant Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a Kaukauna Republican.
"Many victims feel alone in the process," Steineke said. "They are hesitant to come forward or will stop following through when intimidated by perpetrators."
In most states, including Wisconsin, an advocate isn't always allowed to get involved in certain activities such as victims' interviews with police officers or meetings with medical personnel. Current law doesn't spell out victims' right to be accompanied by an advocate at all occasions, meaning a prosecutor, police officer or medical worker can block the presence of an advocate.
The legislation would apply to victims of domestic abuse, harassment, certain sexual assault crimes and certain child abuse crimes.
Steineke said offenders are more likely to be brought to justice when an advocate can help victims make it through a painful process, and one expert agreed.
"Entering the criminal justice system can be hard for victims after trauma," said Ian Henderson, director of legal and systems services at the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "They are more willing to report and their cases are more likely to be investigated if an advocate could help them with necessary information and procedures."
At least 11 states have laws that provide for the presence of an advocate or counselor at police interviews or forensic exams by a certified nurse.
Penterman, a board member of the coalition since 2011, applauded the proposal, while noting that victims must first stand up for themselves before others can help. She also volunteers at the Harbor House Domestic Abuse Shelter in Appleton to help women and children fight domestic violence.
"I want to be like Sally," Penterman said. "I want to help more victims to speak out for themselves."
Wisconsin has more than 40 sexual assault service providers where advocate can help victims for free. They are funded by the state's Sexual Assault Victim Services program. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed $4 million from the state's general fund for the program to pay for grants awarded to assist victims over the next two years.
Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said he supports Walker's funding request, but the Legislature needs to find more funding for sexual assault awareness programs. He said he planned to work with other lawmakers on a larger package in the coming weeks.
"There is more that can be done and should be done," Suder said. "This proposal is a great effort, but it's only one piece of a big puzzle."
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