The ceremony, held at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, brought together advocates and victims of crime to observe their combined efforts from throughout the year to continue the healing process in the wake of tragedy. The theme of this year’s event, “Engaging Communities. Empowering Victims,” was selected to emphasize the importance of community-based organizations, which support and empower victims as they become survivors.
O’Brien’s journey began in 1982 when his daughter, Deirdre, was murdered. Compounding this horrific loss, the family soon learned that victims and their families had few rights and little access to full participation in the criminal justice system. In response, he and his wife Georgia O’Brien became pioneers for victims’ rights in New Jersey and James would work tirelessly on this subject until his death in December at age 84.
The family spearheaded the campaign for a state constitutional amendment for crime victims, which was passed by voters in 1992. On December 5 of that year, 10 years to the day Deirdre was killed, the amendment became effective in New Jersey. The amendment states that “a victim of crime shall be treated with fairness, compassion and respect by the criminal justice system.”
James served five years as a Morris County Freeholder and in 1996 was appointed Commissioner of the New Jersey Victims of Crime Compensation Board, a post he held until 2001. During that time, James and Georgia opened a child advocacy center in Morristown called Deirdre’s House. Named for their daughter it celebrates their efforts to bring a strong and permanent voice to the often voiceless.
“Mr. O’Brien’s legacy is that of a fierce advocate and compassionate community servant. His life’s work on victim’s rights stands second to none,” Hoffman said. “Organizations like Deirdre’s House embody the theme we are celebrating this week because by serving child victims of abuse, it provides a loving place in its community for a voiceless and vulnerable population to be healed and encouraged.”
“Robust crime victims’ assistance is critical to effective law enforcement, because investigators and prosecutors rely upon victims to hold criminals accountable for their crimes,” said Division of Criminal Justice Director Elie Honig. “Helping victims and their families recover from violent crime is also the right thing to do and we are proud that in New Jersey, victims of crimes can find the help they need.”
Acting Attorney General Hoffman and Director Honig bestowed awards to several victims’ rights advocates at the ceremony as part of the annual Office of the Attorney General Excellence in Victims’ Justice observance. Hoffman announced at the ceremony that the Lifetime Achievement Award for Victims’ Justice will be named for O’Brien to celebrate his contribution to the cause.
The winners of those awards were:
JAMES K. O’BRIEN AWARD
Sharon Mai, Retired Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Victim Witness Coordinator
Prior to retiring, Mai served as the County Victim Witness Coordinator in Hudson County for over 30 years and served in the Prosecutor’s Office for 50 years. Mai worked alongside Jim O’Brien to get the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights and the New Jersey Constitutional Amendment for Victims’ Rights passed. In 2001, Sharon worked tirelessly after the attacks on 9/11 at the Family Assistance Center at Liberty State Park. Over the six months the center was open, the Center served over 15,000 primary and secondary victims.
Michele Miller, Assistant Prosecutor, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office
During her 14 year-tenure with the office, Miller has represented the interests of hundreds of crime victims while at the office, many of whom stay in contact with her after the case has been adjudicated. Over her years with the office, Miller has been assigned to a number of specialized units including Gangs/Narcotics, Homicide/Major Crimes, and the Adult Trial Section where she currently serves as a trial supervisor.
Jayne Guarino, Victim Witness Coordinator, Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office
Guarino has been actively fighting for victims’ justice for 42 years. In 1976, Guarino worked as a Probation Officer for the Middlesex County Probation Department and began then her career in advocating for equality and fairness for victims. In 1985, she joined the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office as an Agent and was later appointed as the Victim Witness Coordinator in 1987. In 2003, she was appointed as County Prosecutor’s Office Support Staff Manager and was instrumental in the development of its Victim Advocacy Center.
Joan Nixon, Victim Witness Coordinator, Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office
Nixon has been devoted to serving victims of violent crimes for the past 15 years. Prior to joining the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office of Victim Witness Advocacy in 2005, she worked as an advocate for Bergen County’s Alternative to Domestic Violence for five years. As the head the Passaic County Prosecutors Office Victim Witness Unit, Nixon has made an impact on the lives of hundreds of victims by going above and beyond to assist them in navigating their way through the criminal justice process. Nixon coordinates Passaic County’s Crime Victims’ Rights Week ceremony, which is held on a Sunday to allow full community participation and thus her efforts epitomize this year’s national theme.
CRIME VICTIMS’ RIGHTS AWARD
Suzanne Groisser, Esq., Coordinator of Pro Bono Legal Services for the Rachel Coalition
Suzanne Groisser is an attorney who, while attending Harvard Law School, trained and supervised more than 300 law students and pro-bono attorneys to assist battered women in obtaining orders of protection against abuse. A former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, Groisser has since 2003 worked as an attorney at the Rachel Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that provides vital services to victims of domestic violence. As the Coordinator of Legal Services, she provides legal representation to victims of domestic violence in Family Court matters.
EXCELLENCE AWARD for VICTIMS’ JUSTICE
Maria Savettiere, Executive Director, Deirdre’s House
Deirdre’s House not only serves child victims with compassion and dignity, but also now stands as a living testament to the work of Jim O’Brien on behalf of victims in New Jersey. A nationally-accredited child advocacy center, Deirdre’s House provides a loving place for child victims to heal and recover from their trauma. Through comprehensive services and various programming, conducted in both Spanish and English, Deirdre’s House is able to immediately serve the needs of child victims from a variety of backgrounds.
NJ ATTORNEY GENERAL AMBASSADOR AWARD for VICTIMS’ JUSTICE
Ruth Anne Koenick, Executive Director, Rutgers University Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance Rutgers, SCREAM Theater Program
SCREAM (Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths) Theater is a peer educational, interactive theater program that provides information about interpersonal violence including sexual assault, dating violence, same-sex violence, stalking, bullying, and harassment. Developed in the 1990’s by The Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers, SCREAM Theater is guided by its commitment to help create communities that do not tolerate violence. Through post-performance discussion with the audience, SCREAM works to dispel myths about interpersonal violence, create safe spaces for survivors and encourage bystanders to take action to interrupt situations that are violent or could lead to violence.