Michelle Cruz and the OVA: “The Independent Watchdog” Empowering Crime Victims

Michelle S. Cruz
Michelle S. Cruz

On the most recent edition of “Shattered Lives,” Michelle Cruz, Esquire, spoke of a crime victim’s plight in a way that many can relate to in Connecticut…and throughout the country.   She knows from professional and personal experience….

As the Administrator of the State of Connecticut Office of the Victim Advocate, an independent, autonomous agency for crime victims, she rightfully stated that crime victims are “in a virtual prison” simply by being victims who are unfamiliar with their rights and “the system.”  This is a form of re-victimization that many victims encounter.

As a new crime victim, we enter the system…We believe that prosecutors and the police will always take an interest.   We believe they will always do the right thing… We want to believe that they will respond in a timely manner and keep us informed.  We want them to put the pieces together and make our case a priority.  However, we know that given law enforcements’ lack of training concerning the rights of crime victims… and what really matters to them, the sheer volume of cases… the “lack of resources in hard economic times,” “This is an active case that I can’t discuss…” and a myriad of other forces and excuses, the hard realities of the criminal justice system are sometimes “a hiccup or a major barrier” for those who are the most vulnerable.

Listen to SHATTERED LIVES with LadyJustice and Michelle Cruz: CLICK HERE

OVA Versus OVS- What’s the Difference?

In a majority of states, victim services are offered through the State’s Attorney’s office.  However, in Connecticut, the direct service providers, including court advocates, are administered through the Judicial Branch of state government.

In contrast, the beauty of the Office of the Victim Advocate is that it is indeed an independent entity…. ‘One that is designed for self–criticism and a watchdog agency looking at how criminal justice is performed.  This agency “is forced to look in the mirror” and change the injustices experienced by crime victims. Although every state has crime victim  statutes and Constitutional rights that are supposed to be upheld and enforced, to date, only13 states have the independent agency whose mission it is, among other mandates, to shine a light on, rectify injustices and enforce victim rights!  Ladyjustice asks why other states are such “shrinking violets” when it comes to this important function.  Perhaps they don’t want to hear it…..  Perhaps they don’t want to put their money where the rhetoric is in the rightful clam that victim rights are and should be a priority in all 50 states.

Ms. Cruz related that the problem is… when a state does not have an independent enforcement agency; victims are forced to go back to the same offending agency- to a supervisor to report lack of follow-up on case, misdeeds or otherwise, concerning a prosecutor or police force that isn’t doing their job. Spinning your wheels……   What is the recourse in the “other 37” states?  Perhaps an independent agency, maybe assistance from an Attorney General or… the hiring of a private attorney who is willing and able to advocate for your needs. However, this appears very hit or miss….

When the OVA receives a call, they begin the process by gathering documents – reviewing pre-arrest or post conviction files. In essence, they critique what has been done in the past and make a plan of correction to facilitate justice…whatever form that may take.  Although subpoena power is not within their purview, the OVA has many other methods of recourse such as… the ability to change state policy, craft and advocate for legislation, and as attorneys, accompany and represent crime victims in court.  In addition, they can do thorough case investigations with follow-up findings and recommendations.

At the Office of the Victim Advocate, the Administrator can create his or her own mission of priorities while enforcing a variety of mandates.  Within the OVA, you need a leader who understands victim’s rights…and really listens to the concerns of victims without lip service. Since 2007, Michelle Cruz is that person.

The Office of Victim Services in Connecticut performs complementary and parallel functions such as:

Specific services offered by OVS Advocates which are very similar to the functions of crime victim advocates in other states include:

OVS court-based victim services advocates help victims of violent crime by notifying them of their rights and by providing information and assistance. OVS victim services advocates are available in many of the courthouses throughout the state.

OVS Victim Services Advocates:

  • Notify victims of their rights
  • Provide information to the victim about the criminal case and criminal justice system
  • Act as a liaison between victims and court personnel
  • Escort victims and their family members to court proceedings
  • Advocate for victims during court proceedings
  • Assist victims with the return of property
  • Provide victims with social service referrals
  • Assist victims in submitting requests for restitution
  • Assist victims and their family members in preparing and delivering a victim impact statement
  • Coordinate victim compensation applications to OVS

OVS Helpline

OVS operates a toll-free helpline to assist callers in obtaining information on OVS programs and services as well as referrals to various agencies that assist victims of crime and their families.

The OVS victim services advocate assigned to the helpline assists victims whose cases are heard in a court that does not have an OVS court-based victim services advocate. Assistance may include informing victims of their rights and of upcoming court dates as well as helping victims understand the criminal justice system.

For more information, please call OVS at 800-822-8428, Monday- Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The Agonized Five The OVA office phones ring often with a promise to callers to respond within 24 hours.  The majority of calls received generally encompass a few areas   According to Ms. Cruz, those who bear the brunt of the worst the criminal justice system has to offer, include crime victims falling into the following categories:

  • Missing Persons and their Families;
  • Cold Cases;
  • Sexual Assault Victims;
  • DV/Intimate Partner Violence Victims;
  • “I Can’t Wait Anymore”

It is this last category that Atty. Cruz speaks with passion. The message is clear…It is vital…and yet, it is unknown to the populace at large!  Her message is that crime victims do not have to and should not wait until their case and hope is “completely flat lined”…unattended, forgotten, cobweb ridden, etc. Do not wait… Do not be afraid to challenge… Make your concerns known.  Demand your rights early on!  Victims should be able to speak to their prosecutor, have their cold case opened, be informed by the police etc.  Do not wait… Enlist help.

Ladyjustice thinks that we are acculturated into being polite citizens, always following the rules, never making waves.  However, when it comes to violent crime, time is not on your side. You must stand up… you must question and learn your rights.  OVA is one answer!

As an example, she quoted a 1963 landmark case in the US Supreme Court Gideon vs. Wainwright to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys. Mr. Gideon was charged with breaking and entering and intent to commit petty larceny.  Gideon appeared in court and was too poor to afford counsel, whereupon the following conversation took place:

The COURT: “Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.

GIDEON: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.”

Gideon was forced, therefore, to act as his own counsel and conduct a defense of him in court, emphasizing his innocence in the case. Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict, sentencing him to serve five years in the state prison.

From his prison cell at Florida State Prison, making use of the prison library and writing in pencil on prison stationery, Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court in a suit against the Secretary to the Florida Department of Corrections, H.G. Cochran (who later retired and was replaced with Louie L. Wainwright). He argued that he had been denied counsel and, therefore, his Sixth Amendment rights, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, had been violated.

Justice Clark’s concurrent opinion stated that the Constitution never says whether a case is capital and non capital, so legal counsel needs to be provided in all cases. Justice Harlan’s concurrent opinion stated that the mere existence of a serious criminal charge constituted in itself special circumstances requiring the services of counsel at trial.

The bottom line…. Those who are indigent, whether they be accused of a crime, or are the victim of a crime, have just as many legal rights as those who can afford to pay for counsel.

Frequently, by the time OVA becomes involved with missing persons and cold cases, the tragedy may have occurred years prior, but the pain is still palpable.  Janice Smolinski, mother of missing adult son, Billy, has done much to pave the way in Connecticut for the missing and cases gone cold with the introduction of “Billy’s Law.” [LJ – Refer to: https://donnagore.com/2012/02/20/the-hot-potato-case-in-connecticut-missing-billy-smolinski/]   Families in Connecticut no longer have to wait 24 hours to report a missing loved one.

Intimate partner violence initiatives have been many since the arrival of Michelle Cruz and the efforts of other DV Advocates. One example was the offhanded comment by a caller that turned into a positive legislative initiative such that victims of intimate partner violence can no longer be charged with violating their own restraining order or committing “backlash against the victim” since the 2011 legislative session.

Ms. Cruz commented on dual arrest, which historically had been very high in the aftermath of the Tracey Thurman landmark case. The act of self defense was taken into consideration and number of cases of dual arrest were not as high as once thought.  [Connecticut has a mandatory arrest policy in such domestic situations.]

Ms. Cruz teaches at a local law school and discusses this issue with law enforcement…. When it concerns batterers, you may have:

1) Mutual Combat: In which two men are fighting with supposedly equal abilities/strengths.  This would be considered a “good arrest”. However, those that are more troublesome are when,                2) the batterer states. “She pushed me…” or 3) when the victim has obvious defensive wounds and is still arrested.   It is incumbent upon the police to “dig deeper” to get at the truth of the matter.

Molly’s Law- EZ ID: The Molly Bish Foundation, Jay Gardner and inventor Gary Richard, (who appeared on the show “Shark Tank”) began a wonderful initiative to assist in identification of perpetrators in Amber Alerts, hit and run cases, DUI’s etc.  The premise is to alter the current lengthy and confusing series of letters and numbers appearing on most vehicle license plates by replacing them with four alpha-numeric characters and one easily recognized symbol such as a star, heart, circle or diamond.

According to research, children as young as 2.5 can learn symbols a week after seeing it.  Pairing a couple of numbers with a symbol and the color of a car would make cars far more identifiable.  In addition, this system would lend itself to vanity plates and increased revenue such as requesting “Diamond Girl etc.”  When asked about funding, Ms. Cruz commented that everyone panics and tends to name a $12 million figure…  However, if it is rolled out slowly, as people turn in their license plates every 5 to 7 years, the cost would be very reasonable.  This law is predicted to pass in the Massachusetts legislature this year and may be up for consideration next year in Connecticut!  Woo Hoo!  What a fantastic idea!

The Connecticut SAVIN Program … and other States

(Please refer to this helpful link for services offered in other states)


VINE Service Number: (877) 846-3428

TTY: (866) 847-1298

Connecticut SAVIN Resources

Connecticut Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification

CT SAVIN Service Number: 1-877-VINE-4CT

The Connecticut Judicial Branch provides this toll-free, automated notification service for criminal court related events. CT SAVIN is a free, confidential service that provides crime victims, victim advocates, and other concerned citizens free and confidential notification about a specific criminal court related events.  Following registration it assists victims in monitoring the activities of perpetrators within the prison system and alerts you to any changes in status.

***Michelle Cruz advised that if you are registered with the Department of Correction, you should also register with SAVIN even if your case is “an old case” in order to keep current regarding accurate notification information.

Connecticut SAVIN is operated by the VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) service and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Crime victims and interested individuals may register for notification by telephone or e-mail; hearing and speech impaired individuals may also register by calling 711 for the Telecommunications Relay Service.

In addition to this online tool, the CT SAVIN also offers a free and anonymous telephone service that provides victims of crime with two important features: information and notification. Information is provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. VINE Service Representatives are always available to assist callers. This toll-free number is 1-877-VINE-4CT (1-877-846-3428).

To register online – click on the OFFENDERS tab or UPDATE REGISTRATION information in the boxes located in the left margin. Registered users will receive notification by telephone or e-mail with live operator assistance always available to answer your questions.

Parting Comments    

Michelle Cruz brought a wealth of knowledge with her as a former prosecutor from Massachusetts and former resident of California… much brainstorming and investigating regarding what works and does not work, what services neighboring states are using and may be underutilized.  It takes “out of the box thinking” to be effective.

Her charge is to assist victims, and her message is for any of you to call whether it be a question to set you on the right track, to “fix a hiccup” or a major barrier to justice.  All calls are confidential.  If you would like to collaborate as a service provider from another state, call Michelle at the OVA.  Her contact information is: Michelle.Cruz@ct.gov; Office number;  860-550-6632 or www.ct.gov/ova .  She monitors 24/7…. That’s what we crime victim advocates do, in case you haven’t heard!

References: http://www.jud.ct.gov/crimevictim/; https://www.vinelink.com/vinelink/initMap.do;                                                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_v._Wainwright; http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2012/02/new_england_police_chiefs_back.html


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