This Living Local segment is sponsored by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CBS 42 Living Local), Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway is taking a victim-centered approach as his office expands its Victim Assistance Unit and extends a hand to those who have been innocently involved in crimes.

“We want to make sure that they get justice at the end of the day. So, we’re there to help them get the justice they deserve,” Pettway said.

The unit was the first of its kind in Alabama 20 years ago, paving the way for other jurisdictions to follow. At the time, it was unusual to send civilians to a crime scene with deputies. Wanda Miller was part of that inaugural team.

“Once we got out there and we proved to the deputies and to all the other personnel that we could be an asset,” Miller explained.

Since then, countless connections have been formed with community organizations, helping the Sheriff’s Office provide victims with everything from temporary housing to funeral assistance and even transportation to receive medical care.

“That case doesn’t stop at the courthouse. You know, a lot of people think that once the court case is over with, it’s all done. But that victim continues down that path,” Miller continued.

Last year alone, six to seven thousand victims were guided through the system by this unit. With just four coordinators on staff, that means somebody is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Since Sheriff Pettway took office, The unit has added Georgia, a K-9 trained to bring comfort and support to those experiencing trauma.

Soon, the team will grow again. The Sheriff’s Office has received a grant worth more than $700,000 to expand the team to six coordinators and help survivors with unexpected needs.

“They need food, they need bills, pay and utilities, expenses, child care, a miss or whatever it is, you know, where they go to, to help meet that need,” Said Gloria Turner, a Victim Assistance Coordinator.

During the pandemic, domestic violence cases in Jefferson county spiked, with more than 4,000 incidents being handled by the Sheriff’s Office in 2021. This unit works closely with victims, especially when they’re ready to leave their abuser.

“We provide a safe haven for them to be able to stay until we can get a permanent residence for them. So we’re there to help them through the process. But during the pandemic, we did see a spike,” Sheriff Pettway recalled.

Ultimately the goal is for coordinators to provide a safe space for victims, many times forming close relationships as their case makes its way through court.

“I just feel like if I can, you know, be a hands up to somebody to bring them up, you know, when they’re down, you know, pretty much. I feel like my work has been fulfilled,” Turner explained.