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Coordinators help victims through difficult process

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Across Oklahoma, there are 27 people whose sole responsibility is to help guide victims and their families through the legal process.

They are victim witness coordinators and each district attorney is assigned one.

``I think it's unbelievable the amount of work they do with the resources they are given,'' said Suzanne Breedlove, who oversees the state District Attorneys Council's Victims Service Division. ``They are a very strong group of people. They have such compassion for the people they work with. I know they're not afraid to say they sometimes cry with families.

``They're not ashamed of that.''

The coordinator and the victim sometimes go through years of dialogue and face-to-face contact. Their journey can include everything from rudimentary introductions to the court system, to comforting moments during trials, to representation at Pardon and Parole Board hearings years later.

``Sometimes I've just gone home and cried over what I've seen,'' said Kay County victim witness coordinator Jodie Frazier. ``You just have to come to terms with the fact that you can be there for these people and comfort them, but that you can't change what has happened to them.

``When I first started, I wanted to make everything right for victims. But that's impossible.''

Frazier learned one of her biggest lessons in 1984 when she became acquainted with a 14-year-old rape victim. At the time, Frazier was 23 and eager to save the world.

``Ultimately, the girl was murdered to keep from testifying,'' Frazier said. ``That was absolutely my worst nightmare. I had a daughter, and I could relate at that time what could happen to her. That one took its toll.''

Learning to cope becomes crucial.

For Grady County victim witness coordinator Karen Cunningham, that might mean a session of aerobics or a weekend round of golf with her husband, Ron.

Cunningham currently is working on a case that involves two boys who were abused by their father, who has since entered a guilty plea.

Color photos of the boy's bruised body sit in Cunningham's case file. She looks at the file and shakes her head in disgust.

``This is one of the worst I've ever seen,'' Cunningham said. ``Sometimes it's tough. A lot of times I just want to take them home with me.''

Cunningham instead does the next best thing. She keeps them in her heart.

``I never forget a name or case,'' she said. ``I remember them all.''

The feeling is sometimes mutual.

Louise Johnson crossed Cunningham's path 11 years ago after her daughter, Deborah Dennis, was fatally shot during a botched robbery in Chickasha. Dennis, a 34-year-old mother of two, had 24 cents in her pockets when she was murdered April 14, 1993.

Johnson was sitting in the car seat next to her daughter when she was killed.

The trial left her physically and mentally drained as she had to relive the horrific events.

``I probably wouldn't have made it if it hadn't been for Karen and the others in the DA's office,'' Johnson said. ``They held me up, literally, when I couldn't stand. And I mean literally. They shared the grief and the pain.

``They're not just people to me. They're family.''
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