Being told by an ex-husband her oldest son was killed by a drunk driver in September 2017-three hours after it happened-was about the worst possible scenario for a Brainerd mother to endure.
"I asked where's Brenden, and he said, 'Brenden's dead,'" said Tessa Fenstermaker of how she found out her son was killed in a one-vehicle rollover crash during a phone call with her ex-husband. Her ex-husband's girlfriend's 18-year-old son was the drunk driver. "I wanted to know what was going on. ... I felt left out right away. I felt like I was on my own.
"Victim services was my lifeline and gave me some hope that things would be taken care of and not swept under the rug. Underage drinking is a problem and I wanted to make sure my thoughts were being listened to."
Fenstermaker told her story March 20 to several victim service advocates and law enforcement officers during a group interview in the conference room at the Crow Wing County Attorney's Office to help promote National Crime Victims' Rights Week set April 7-13. The year's theme is "Honoring Our Past. Creating Hope for the Future," and celebrates the progress the nation has made as it looks at the future of crime victim services as more inclusive, accessible and trauma-informed, as stated on the U.S. Department of Justice website.
Fenstermaker is not alone, as drunk driving is just one of many crimes leaving victims with a feeling they have no voice or are alone.
Crow Wing County is fortunate to have agencies staffed with victim advocates who can support victims of sexual assault, domestic assault, drunk driving or alcohol-related crimes, or crimes of any nature.
Sources in Brainerd include the Mid-Minnesota Women's Center, Crow Wing County Victim Services Inc., Sexual Assault Services Inc. and Lutheran Social Services. The Crow Wing County Attorney's Office also added a victim service coordinator position-filled by Julie Charpentier-who connects victims with the appropriate victim advocacy agency in the county. The advocacy groups then help the victims with various services, such as providing them information about the court process, which often can be about a two-year process. They also provide support, counseling services and anything else victims might need.
To celebrate National Crime Victims' Rights Week, the groups will be providing a booth with information on victim resources and host a coloring contest for children. The booths will be set-up on the main floor of the Crow Wing County Judicial Center and the lobby of the social services building.
About Victim Services
Kathy Fleisher, executive director of Victim Services, said they assist victims with advocacy and support in all the general crime areas, including assault, robbery, burglary, theft, homicide, elder abuse, DWI, traffic offenses with a victim, arson, fraud and identity theft, criminal damage to property and bias motivated crimes.
In 2018, victim services served 428 victims and provided 4,742 services to those victims. In the last five years the number of victims served has increased by 46 percent and services provided to these victims has increased by 215 percent.
Fleisher said the agency employs only her and Heather Anthony, both as advocates for victims. If the victim is deceased, the agency supports the surviving relatives.
Support services they provide include crisis intervention, reassurance and support, exploration of options to resolve problems created by the crime, information on victim rights, referrals for services, help in completing orders for protection and advocacy on behalf of the victims to secure their rights.
Fleisher said they assist the victims in understanding the criminal justice process, as victims have the right to be notified of plea agreements, changes in court and sentencing schedules, final disposition of a case, the transfer of the offender to another secure facility, or their release, or if they escaped.
Victims also have a right to inform the court of the personal impact of the crime at pretrial and sentencing; have input in a pretrial diversion program, object to a plea bargain, request a speedy trial, bring a supportive person to pretrial hearing, may give written objections to the sentence and may attend the sentencing.
"As advocates, we sometimes feel like our work is not appreciated and we're not doing anything," Fleisher said. "I wish we could help more. To hear (a victim's story saying we helped) is awesome."
Each victim is different, Fleisher said. Some victims don't want to know anything as the person who harmed them goes through the court process; others want to know everything.
"We work hard in the beginning to get to know where the victims are at and find out how much information they want to know," Fleisher said. "It's important for the victims to let the advocates know where they are at. For some, it is too painful to attend every court hearing."
About women's shelter
The women's shelter has been around since 1978, providing shelter to domestic abuse victims-including women, children and men-24 hours a day, seven days a week. The shelter provides personal advocacy, information and referral, criminal justice and legal advocacy, support groups and community education. The center also operates the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center, which opened in 2000 and provides a place for safe visits and exchanges for children.
Cindy Westberg, a criminal justice intervention advocate for the women's shelter, said the shelter has had an increase in the number of victims it supports. She also noted there are more victims, however not all victims report the abuse to law enforcement.
Westberg said her role is new and when she sees there has been an arrest in a domestic assault incident, she reaches out to the victims to see if they need any assistance. She said not all victims want help, but if they do it is the advocate's job to let them know what is available to them.
The shelter provided statistics in growth from 2013 to 2018:
• Residential victims: 76 women, no men and 74 children and 12 adults were identified of having a mental illness.
• Provided 667 adults with crisis counseling/intervention; 5,814 adults with personal advocacy; group support to 1,173 adults and 71 children; and 4,610 times staff offered information and referrals.
• Residential victims: 90 women, 2 men and 76 children and 239 adults were identified of having a mental illness.
• Provided 3,432 adults with crisis counseling/intervention; 6,965 adults with personal advocacy; group support to 2,586 adults and 526 children; and 5,234 times staff offered information and referrals.
About Sexual Assault Services
Sexual Assault Services offer 24-7 services to people who have been sexually violated, as well as their friends and family. Advocates provide support during medical exams, court hearings and trials and any support they need. Advocates also help victims of sexual assault fill out orders for protection if needed.
Marianne Washburn, executive director of the nonprofit, said they receive most of their referrals from the attorney's office on victims who need support services, but they also receive referrals from law enforcement and hospitals. Washburn said the agency works primarily with the hospitals in Brainerd and Crosby, but will travel to any hospital if called.
"When we go to the hospitals we will stay with the victims during their rape exams and be there for support," Washburn said. "We often times refer the victims to the women's shelter for a place to stay and we keep in touch with them."
Washburn said the number of sexual assault victims is climbing. They used to average one or two victims a week and now they average about one to three victims a day.
"We hired some new people to help," she said. "It's hard to say if there are more victims of sexual assault or if its because people are more aware of the program. In the past two or three years, we have seen more male victims."
The nonprofit also has a support group and helps run the Crisis Line and Referral Services. The Crisis Line was established in 1988 in response to a significant number of teen suicides and suicidal attempts. Today, thousands of calls later, the number of calls has grown assisting people from all walks of life, its website stated. Its mission is to provide confidential and anonymous telephone support to people in distress and crisis and to serve as a lifeline for positive change by connecting our clients to area resources and to give support and encouragement.
The crisis line serves six counties of Crow Wing, Cass, Aitkin, Morrison, Wadena and Todd.
LSS Saving Grace program
Heidi Fairchild, the LSS Saving Grace program coordinator, said there are four staff members who work with young people through the age of 24 who have been sexually exploited or sex trafficed.
Saving Grace is a specialized foster care program for sex-trafficked children serving Crow Wing and six other surrounding counties. The local LSS office receives funding from the state through the Safe Harbor Law initiative, which developed the Saving Grace program.
"Those in the life who have been exploited are now looked at as victims instead of criminals," Fairchild said. "This is a huge step forward in the state of Minnesota. This is an infant program right now and has only been around for a couple of years. We get a lot of calls."
Fairchild said LSS works closely with the victims and helps them transition out of the sex trafficing world.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Fenstermaker said the only resource she knew to call after her son's death was MADD, whose mission is to end drunk driving, support the victims of these violent crimes associated with driving under the influence and prevent underage drinking. She googled MADD to find a phone number and was put in contact with Rahya Iliff, victim services manager with MADD.
"At first I had a horrible experience with the whole criminal process due to not being told my son was killed until three hours after by my ex-husband told me," Fenstermaker said. "I have never dealt with the court system before besides my divorce. I was given a victim advocate from Cass County as that is where the crash was ... and she gave me a layout to what would happen and about how long it would take to go through the court system.
"I was never left alone. I never felt alone. She explained to me what was going on and when she couldn't be with me in court she sent someone else to sit with me."
Fenstermaker said the victim advocates helped her make decisions about the case and let her know she has rights. She was able to offer the court conditions she wanted to see happen to the defendant, such as having no contact with her children.
"I wanted to know my thoughts were being listened to," she said.
Fenstermaker said a plea deal was worked out and the defendant-who was 18 at the time of the crash and he had a 0.09 blood alcohol level-served a year in jail. Another condition is the defendant must speak to students every Sept. 22, the day of the fatal crash, about drinking and driving.
"I was honored to work with Tessa," Iliff said. "We really rely on networking with organizations and county attorney's offices to reach out to victims of drinking and driving. Our office is based in St. Paul and I oversee the whole state, so we travel a lot. We go to the victim.
"A big part of my job is working with the victim and their family. ... We explain things to them and help navigate them through the court hearings. We are their resource for the things they do not understand, we want to serve them the best we can."
According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, in 2017:
• 10,874 people in the U.S. died in drunk driving crashes-one every 48 minutes-and more than 300,000 were injured in drunk driving crashes.
• Every two minutes, a person is injured in a drunk driving crash.
• MADD provides a supportive service to a victim every three minutes.
• About one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders.
• Every day about 800 people are injured in a drunk driving crash.
• An average drunk driver has driven drunk more than 80 times before first arrest.
Lt. Andy Galles of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office said authorities are thankful for the victim advocacy groups. Galles said when deputies respond to domestic assault calls, they provide the victims with the business cards of the advocate agencies.
"From the law enforcement perspective, I think sometimes we lose the empathic side a little bit or we forget there are victims who we are getting called to investigate that there are real victims who are impacted," Galles said. "We are getting calls to investigate and we go from call to call whether it be an assault, a burglary or a crash like Tessa's son. We do our job as law enforcement and go on to the next job.
"I think sometimes the public may look at us like we are machines or robots and that it doesn't affect us, but it does. When we go on scene, it's stuff we cannot unhear or unsee and the children victims are the hardest calls. Listening to Tessa's story, I put myself in her shoes. As a parent I would not want to be left out of the loop. I would want to know what is going on."
Galles said there has been an increase in advocacy services over time and all the agencies work well with law enforcement in getting the victims the help they need. He said the sheriff's office is always looking at ways to improve what they can do to help victims of crimes.
• Mid-Minnesota Women's Center: 218-828-1216 or 888-777-1248, www.womenscenteronline.org; Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center, 218-828-0022,
• Lutheran Social Services: Hotline in 218-824-3770, regular phone 218-824-3777; www.lssmn.org,
• Crow Wing County Attorney's Office for Julie Charpentier at 218-824-1025.
• Crisis Line: 218-828-4357 or 800-468-5525. Office number-218-828-4515 or email@example.com,
• MADD: 877-623-3435 or /www.madd.org,
• To report a crime call the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office at 218-829-4749. In an emergency call 911. To learn more about the sheriff's office go to https://crowwing.us/92/Sheriff.
**UPDATE: The contact information for Victim Services was incorrect. The email and website is now correct.