Combined Experience Of More Than Half A Century
For Doris Cannon & Marilyn Layton Being A Victim Advocate Is More Than Just A Job
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21, 2021
Doris Cannon checks her emotions at the courtroom doors.
“There have been cases where the testimony is just gut-wrenching,” she says, “and everyone, including the judge, will be crying—everyone but me. I put my armor on and stay strong for the victim’s family.”
This month marks Cannon’s 25th anniversary as a Victim Advocate in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. She believes she has an obligation to the families she works with to “keep it together.” They’re grieving a loved one—Cannon is assigned homicide cases—and the slow-turning gears of the criminal justice system can often compound their anguish, causing them to be stuck in the anger stage of grief.
“These families want their cases resolved so they can get on with their lives and have some sense of closure,” says Cannon. “Murder cases can take two or three years. Unfortunately, that can mean a family is going to be repeatedly hearing about what happened to their daughter or son… wife or husband… sister or brother…
“Some families think we can wave a wand and get their cases resolved in a matter of weeks. Some just want us to make it all go away.”
Advocates serve as liaisons between the victims—or their surviving family members—and the attorneys in the Prosecutor’s Office. Among their chief responsibilities is guiding victims through the complexities of the legal process, notifying them about court dates and then attending all court hearings with them. They also refer victims to services available to them in the community, including counseling.
Lauren Barrett, a Chief Trial Assistant for the General Crimes and Warrant Desk Unit, calls Victim Advocates “invaluable” as she and other attorneys prepare cases for trial. Advocates, she stresses, are especially effective at explaining to victims a hard truth about criminal cases: prosecutors represent the state and not the victims or the families personally.
“That is not an easy pill for some families to swallow,” Cannon says. “But the Prosecutor can’t represent the interest of one family. The Prosecutor upholds the laws of the state.”
“That’s a conversation that is necessary in almost every case,” Barrett points out, “and multiple times in some cases.”
The advocates’ ability to “really bond with victims and their families,” Barrett continues, can make that conversation and even more difficult ones—such as those about whether or not to offer plea in some cases—less tense: “Our advocates are great at establishing a rapport with the families,” Barrett states, “They are able to build a lot of trust with the families.”
Chief Trial Assistant Jill Icenhower entrusts the Advocates to “get whatever help the victims need,” which for Icenhower’s Special Victims Unit can frequently include securing safe temporary housing and making referrals for support services through the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA).
“Our unit deals with rape and domestic violence—crimes that are as personal as it gets,” emphasizes Icenhower.
Joining the Prosecutor’s Office after being a paralegal for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Canon got her start as an advocate for Domestic Violence victims and has since “worked with just about every type of victim.” The Prosecutor’s Office relies heavily on Cannon and that of another Victim Advocate, Marilyn Layton, who has even more experience—28 years.
Icenhower praises the two long-time advocates: “Doris is an institution around here—really dialed into the community and all the services available to victims. Marilyn is the embodiment of kind.”
Although Cannon and Layton train the new Victim Advocates, neither believes there’s just one right way to do the job.
“I cry with the best of them,” says Layton. “A lot depends on who you are working with. Some victims and their families are very stoic. Some victims you can feel their pain. I’m an emotional creature.”
Layton spent 24 years assigned to homicide cases before becoming the Community Liaison for the Caring For Crime Survivors program four years ago. She’ll mark her 40th year with Jackson County in June, having spent 12 years in the county’s Record of Deeds Department before becoming a Victim Advocate.
During her time with the Recorders, Layton earned a degree in Criminal Justice and explored career opportunities available in the Prosecutor’s Office for non-attorneys.
“My boss in the Recorder’s was very nice about it and let me start an internship with the Prosecutor’s—one day a week, four hours,” recalls Layton. “I worked in the Victim Services Unit and just fell in love with it. The woman I was working with told me one day, ‘I’ve been training you to take my job.’ That was a prayer being answered right before my eyes.”
With their combined half-century-plus experience, Layton and Cannon agree that the most important quality any Advocate must have can’t be taught: empathy.
For the two of them being a Victim Advocate is more than a job. It is their calling.
“It’s like being a nurse,” Cannon says. “You have good nurses who can do the job and get it done. Great nurses have to do the job. They’re great at it because they have a passion for it. You have to care about people.
“The families I work with have been going through probably the worst experience of their lives. If I can do anything to help them get through it, I’ve done some good. That’s what keeps me going.”
Describing herself as a “burden bearer,” Layton says, “I’m a spiritual person, and I know that’s something that carries over into what I do. I believe this is something I’m supposed to be doing.”
That doesn’t mean both Cannon and Layton haven’t had moments when they wondered if they could continue to answer the call.
“I’ve had parents die from losing a child,” Layton says. “The pain was too much for them…. I’ve had trials that took everything out of me. At the end of it, I’d just pass out.”
Cannon, likewise, has had cases that left her telling her colleagues at the office, “I can’t keep doing this”—only to take a deep breathe and return the next day to the 10th floor of the Jackson County Courthouse to continue doing her work. (Layton cancelled her plans to retire a few years ago, deciding, “I still love what I do.”)
There’s always another victim and family who will come to depend on Cannon, Layton or the other Victim Advocates in the Prosecutor’s Office.
“We have a motto: ‘Just expect the unexpected,’” says Cannon. “You might have your whole day planned out—making calls, completing paperwork, etc.—then a court hearing is suddenly scheduled and you have to drop everything. Or maybe a victim’s mother or father calls you and just needs to talk.
“You might still have paperwork to do at the end of the day, but what matters is having done what you needed to that day for the victims and their family. It’s not about us. It’s always about them. I’ll keep coming back in the next day as long as I feel I have enough left in me to give the victims all the help they need.”